Team: Illinois Fighting Illini
Location: Champaign, Ill.
Conference: Big Ten
Head coach: Brad Underwood (fifth season, 47-49 overall)
2020-2021 record: 24-7 overall, 16-4 B1G
Top returning players: 7-foot, C, Kofi Cockburn (17.7 ppg, 9.5 rpg, 1.2 bpg); 6-foot-2, G, Trent Frazier (10.2 ppg, 2.7 rpg, 2.7 apg); 6-foot-1, G, Andre Curbelo (9.1 ppg, 4.0 rpg, 4.2 apg)
Top newcomers: 6-foot-10, F, Omar Payne (transfer from Florida), 6-foot-1, G, Alphonso Plummer (transfer from Utah), 6-foot-7, F, Ramses Melendez (4-star freshman)
2020-2021 review: Illinois was one of the conference's top teams last season. With multiple NBA prospects on the roster, Illinois won the Big Ten Tournament and wound up with a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. The Fighting Illini were ultimately bounced by Loyola-Chicago in the second round, but this was a team that was extremely good a year ago.
Ayo Dosunmu was the top scorer in 2020 at just over 20 points per contest, and he made the jump to the NBA (drafted No. 38 overall by the Chicago Bulls) after a stellar, but brief career in Champaign. Fellow starter Giorgi Bezhanishvili also left early to play professionally, after he was overshadowed, maybe literally, by star big man Kofi Cockburn.
Illinois was a fantastic team a year ago, sweeping the series with the Badgers, and only dropping four games overall in Big Ten play. With a plethora of talented guards, head coach Brad Underwood pushed the tempo and had his team playing aggressive defense night in and night out.
The way Illinois finished in the NCAA Tournament was certainly a letdown, but Underwood did lead his team to the Big Dance for the first time in eight years and clearly improved the talent level.
2021-2022 preview: The announced return of Cockburn absolutely shifted the trajectory of this Illinois team heading into the season. The seven-footer is a matchup nightmare and is a preseason All-Big Ten representative. While the Illini lost a few key pieces such as Dosunmu, Bezhanishvili, and Adam Miller, having an All-Conference DUDE such as Cockburn can go a long way.
Beyond Cockburn’s presence inside, the Fighting Illini have some very talented guards returning as well. Fifth-year senior Trent Frazier is one of the best defenders in the conference and he brings a ton of energy and quickness when he is on the floor. Last year’s Big Ten Sixth Man of the Year, Andre Curbelo, is supremely talented as well, and I would imagine that he takes a nice step following his freshman campaign.
Fellow backcourt member Da’Monte Williams is a great three-point shooter, and will probably see more playing time this season too. I am interested to see how much playing time Utah transfer Alphonso Plummer gets right away after averaging over 13 points per game last year as well. Regardless, Brad Underwood has a plethora of guards to turn to.
Joining Cockburn inside is likely where questions remain. Former four-star prospect Omar Payne could provide a lift at either center or power forward after transferring in from Florida, but he will be battling with Coleman Hawkins for opportunities there.
Overall, I think this is an Illinois squad that will once again be one of the Big Ten’s best. There is a lot of proven talent back, and Illinois played extremely well while Dosunmu was out for three games last year with a face injury. With a bevy of athletic guards and a dominant player like Cockburn to protect the rim, they will be tough this season.
Luckily, the Badgers only draw Illinois once this season.
Game vs. Wisconsin: Wednesday, Feb. 2, Champaign, Ill., State Farm Center, BTN, 8 p.m. CT