Key Departures: Ayo Dosunmu (NBA); Giorgi Bezhanishvili (NBA); Adam Miller (–>LSU)
New In Town: Alfonso Plummer (<–Utah); Omar Payne (<–Florida); Ramses Melendez (#92); Luke Goode (#99); Brandin Podziemski (#105)
State of the Program:
Brad Underwood has come in and resuscitated a program that had devolved into irrelevance for the last 15 years after dominating in the early 2000’s. Last year’s group established the return of the Illini, ending the season on a 14-1 streak, including a Big Ten Tournament Championship, as they entered the Madness one of the hottest teams in the country. Unfortunately for them, they didn’t show up game 2 and got out-worked and out-executed by a less talented Loyola (Chi) team. A disappointing end to a great season, but the wave of momentum that has engulfed the program should continue to build in spite of the losses of Dosunmu and Adam Miller as they still welcome back a ton of firepower. That group is led by the return of consensus 2nd Team All-American C Kofi Cockburn (JR), who returns to the Illini as a bona fide superstar. His dominance in the interior on both ends gives the Illini a weapon coaches dream about. Combine that with Big Ten 6th MOY and All-Freshman Andre Curbelo (SO) ready to take over the offense at the point, alongside the 5th year for Trent Frazier (SR) and Da’Monte Williams (SR), returning role players Jacob Grandison (SR) and Coleman Hawkins (SO), and it’s clear this program isn’t going anywhere.
Not only do the Illini welcome back a solid core from last year’s group, they’re bringing in a nice combination of transfers and Freshmen to help the cause, led by Utah transfer 6’1” G Alfonso Plummer (JR). Plummer is very similar to new teammate Trent Frazier, small, twitchy and throws absolute darts from outside. A career 40% 3-point shooter he averaged nearly 14 ppg last year for the Utes, with ability off catch and shoot opportunities as well as off the bounce, he should step in to fill the Adam Miller void. Next is Florida transfer 6’9” F Omar Payne (JR), who will likely serve as the primary backup to Cockburn inside. Payne is a freak athlete who never really found his footing in Gainesville, but he was a top-50 recruit and should rebound and block shots as a nice backup big. DIII transfer 6’6” G/F Austin Hutcherson (JR) also returns from injury looking to get his first D1 action this season. He was a prolific scorer at the DIII level and will compete for the starting 3 spot. Ramses Melendez (#92) leads the freshmen group as a 6’7” SF who comes in as a good athlete that is very effective on the catch and shoot from outside. He’ll need to improve his playmaking to get to the next level, but his stroke and athleticism should make him a productive player for this program. This year he will battle veterans for backup minutes. The 6’7” SF Luke Goode (#99) is a very similar prospect to Melendez, a little less athletic but a sniper from deep he should develop as a solid piece. His athleticism likely limits him this season, as a redshirt seems likely to be on the horizon for him. Brandin Podziemski (#105) rounds out the class as a 6’5” SG that I am the most high on in this entire class. Rankings have him last but his playmaking ability and feel for the game look to be already a step ahead of his classmates, and his lefty stroke looks good as well. He knows how to create for himself with ability at all 3 levels, and that distinguishes him from the other 2. Not saying he has a big role this year, he may even redshirt, but when it’s all said and done I like his production to be the highest of this group.
Underwood has a lot to work with here, with a veteran core, impact transfers and a nice group of Freshmen. I’d expect Curbelo and Frazier to man the backcourt, with Cockburn and Grandison likely starting at the 4/5 spots. The 3 is where things get interesting, as Plummer is likely the 5th best guy but starting 3 6’1” guys seems unlikely. A 3 man platoon in the backcourt seems likely, with Hutcherson the best fit at the 3. He could also go big and put the 6’10” sniper Hawkins out there with Grandison. Regardless, the trio of Curbelo/Frazier/Cockburn immediately make this team a top contender, and the complimentary pieces falling into place only furthers the case. They were top-10 in both offensive and defensive efficiency last season, and I expect with the return of Kofi the defense does not fall off one bit. The loss of Ayo hurts the offense, but Curbelo is ready to explode as the QB of the offense, and it may actually eliminate their tendency to stand and watch Ayo go to work, helping them be more involved as a unit. Frazier/Plummer/Hutcherson are all good/great shooters and will make one of the better backcourts in the Conference. Kofi seals the deal if he can repeat his AA performance from last season, creating a 3-headed monster at the top of the Big Ten all of which are more than capable of representing the Conference in the Final Four.