OrangeandBlueNews - Supinie: Power forward the big question mark for Illini hoops
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Supinie: Power forward the big question mark for Illini hoops

CHAMPAIGN – It’s nearly June, and Illini basketball is as unsettled, just like the rest of the world.

Like the NCAA calendar, the stock market and the governor’s Restore Illinois plan, it’s hard to get a handle on the Illini rotation. With two players’ names still in the NBA draft and Illini recruiters working the circuit in an attempt to add another prospect who can make an immediate impact, Illinois is still devising a master plan.

Normally, coaches have a rotation ready to go, at least in their minds, but this is the year of uncertainty nearly everywhere, especially in the Illini basketball coaching offices.

“Usually at this time of year, you have an idea of what your team is going to look like,’’ said Orange and Blue News basketball analyst Brad Sturdy. “I don’t think Illinois does. There’s a lot up in the air with the decisions from Ayo (Dosunmu) and Kofi (Cockburn), then adding that last piece before the season.’’

Coming off a 21-win campaign when the Illini made Illinois basketball fun again and turned the State Farm Center into a hot ticket, Illinois coach Brad Underwood awaits final word from Dosunmu and Cockburn and searches for a power forward to finish off his needs. If things fall right, this could be a breakthrough year, perhaps returning the Illini to elite status.

Giorgi Bezhanishvili #15 of the Illinois Fighting Illini dribbles against Donta Scott #24 of the Maryland Terrapins at State Farm Center on February 7, 2020 in Champaign, Illinois.
Giorgi Bezhanishvili #15 of the Illinois Fighting Illini dribbles against Donta Scott #24 of the Maryland Terrapins at State Farm Center on February 7, 2020 in Champaign, Illinois. (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)

If Dosunmu and Cockburn return, these Illini would contend for the Big Ten Conference title and appear ready to make a deep run in the NCAA Tournament. Final Four aspirations wouldn’t be out of the question. If just Cockburn returns, the Illini are still capable of reaching the Sweet Sixteen, but the need grows at securing a difference-maker at power forward.

Dosunmu’s decision is still the critical element. While he’s likely a second-round NBA pick, Sturdy said, there’s enough gray area to force Dosunmu to make a decision. With the uncertainty because of COVID-19 gripping the NBA, the chances of Dosunmu’s return keep rising. Another year of growth here could make him a millionaire.

“Ayo is a smart kid,’’ Sturdy said. “He knows what he wants. He wants to make a good decision.’’

With Cockburn back in Champaign-Urbana this week, there’s more reason to believe he will return for a sophomore year. From there, it’s about finding a power forward who can help the Illini take that next, giant step. No matter if the Illini pull their names out of the NBA draft, power forward is still the big variable.

“It’s THE question mark,’’ Sturdy said.

While the Illini have options there with transfer Jacob Grandison, European Benjamin Bosmans-Verdonk, freshman Coleman Hawkins and junior Da’Monte Williams, the Illini are still shopping for a game-changer, either a high level prep recruit or perhaps a player falling out of the draft. Had Wake Forest transfer Chaundee Brown chose the Illini instead of Michigan, Illinois was planning to play him as an undersized power forward.

As it stands, Grandison seems like the best option.

“Grandison is probably the guy to get a lot of minutes there, unless they add somebody,’’ Sturdy said. “They were going to use the Wake kid there. Verdonk is a guy who can compete at the position.’’

Hawkins’ issue is strength, but any kind of early arrival this summer for the Illini would allow strength coach Adam Fletcher to work his magic. More likely, he’s a big contributor a year or two down the road.

“If he’s able to get on campus in June and start working out, that would be huge for him,’’ Sturdy said. “He has to develop his body and bulk him up. He’s a skilled passer and shooter, but it’s a lot to ask for a freshman to be that guy right away.’’

One freshman who would make that kind of impact is Michael Foster, a top 10 prospect in the class of 2021 from Phoenix who may reclassify to 2020. The Illini are high on his list, and Foster would be the kind of talent to make the power forward spot his own.

Giorgi Bezhanishvili will also log some time at power forward, as he splits his minutes between a backing up Cockburn at center and earning time alongside Cockburn. There will be matchups where the Illini want to go big, making Bezhanishvili the obvious answer.

Williams was an undersized player at power forward who made his contribution on defense by adding an edgy toughness, but he doesn’t create and rarely scores from the perimeter. Therefore, the Illini would like to upgrade the mix at power forward.

With the possibility of senior Trent Frazier and Dosunmu teaming with freshmen Adam Miller and Andre Curbelo, the backcourt would be loaded. That kind of roster has Illini fans saving money for March Madness.

“If both Ayo and Kofi are back, Illinois has as much talent as they’ve had in a long time,’’ Sturdy said.

There would be nothing that would compare since the days of Dee and Deron. That’s why it’s important for the Illini to piece this thing together over the next couple months. With star-studded talent at guard and a monster in the middle, there would be only one issue.

“Then the question becomes who is the four,’’ Sturdy said.

The clock is ticking, but nobody knows exactly how the world – and the NCAA – will react over the coming months. The Illini hope to reassemble in early June for workouts while attending online classes. The deadline to pull out of the NBA draft was originally set for June 3, but now that’s a moving target.

It’s all about putting the pieces together, which would normally be done by now. It comes down to decisions concerning the NBA draft and figuring it out at power forward.