Illinois Basketball: Excitement at Illinois as the Brad Underwood era begins

NEW YORK, NY - OCTOBER 19: Illinois Men's Basketball Head Coach Brad Underwood speaks at the 2017 Big Ten Basketball Media Day at Madison Square Garden on October 19, 2017 in New York City. (Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - OCTOBER 19: Illinois Men's Basketball Head Coach Brad Underwood speaks at the 2017 Big Ten Basketball Media Day at Madison Square Garden on October 19, 2017 in New York City. (Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images) /

The Illinois basketball fan base is still celebrating last Thursday’s commitment of five-star point guard, Ayo Dosunmu, as the first recruit in the class of 2018.

But excitement also runs high for the team Illinois will be putting on the floor this year.

Last Thursday evening, the Illinois Men’s Basketball team secured the commitment of a five-star point guard from Morgan Park High School, on the south side of Chicago.  Ayo Dosunmu is a 6-foot-4, 170-pound scoring machine and all signs point to him being this year’s Illinois Mr. Basketball.  That is the second Mr. Basketball in a row for new Illinois coach Brad Underwood.

Many – including me – think that both Dosunmu and last year’s prize recruit, Mark Smith, would have committed to Illinois even under John Groce. Dosunmu even mentioned Coach Groce in his announcement presser.  And Smith made it pretty clear that Illinois was his choice all along, despite flirting heavily with Michigan State down the stretch.

However, the remarkable thing about both commitments is the fact that Underwood hasn’t even coached a single game at Illinois.  Smith and Dosunmu seem intent on taking Illinois to the top of the Big Ten again with Underwood.  The fact that they took the biggest step to their goal by committing to a first-year head coach speaks volumes to their character and pride in their home state.  But it also tells me that Coach Underwood and his staff are capturing the imaginations of the best in-state talent.

Illinois basketball
KANSAS CITY, MO – MARCH 09: Head coach Brad Underwood of the Oklahoma State Cowboys reacts from the bench during the quarterfinal game of the Big 12 Basketball Tournament against the Iowa State Cyclones at the Sprint Center on March 9, 2017 in Kansas City, Missouri. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images) /

Dosunmu is Illinois’ first five-star guard since Dee Brown.  Remarkably, he is also the first recruit from the class of 2018.  But there is still a lot of talent on the board.  And it could be that Dosunmu has opened the door for others, including Talen Horton-Tucker, Tim Finke, and Bryan Penn-Johnson.  We’ll see in short order how this class pans out, but in my book, it is already a success.

In all the justified hype over Dosunmu, however, we can’t overlook the talent that Illinois will put on the court this year.  Many people are down on Illinois and do not project them to fare well, especially in Big Ten play.  A soft non-conference schedule – which I will be previewing soon – will give this young team some early wins, and hopefully some confidence.  But, because this group appears to fit Underwood’s guard heavy, fast, and aggressive style on both sides of the court, I think the Illini will do better than projected in conference play as well.

The Backcourt

There is much made about the youth of this Illini team, which is especially true in the backcourt.  With respect to those players likely to actually see significant playing time, it is a little bit troubling when the most experienced player is a grad transfer.  But Mark Alstork is a star, and I have no doubt he will prove to be one of the highest scorers on this team.  Alstork averaged 19 points and almost five rebounds last year at Wright State.  Underwood seems to think he can do that at Illinois too.

After Alstork, the next guard with the most experience is junior Aaron Jordan.  I remain high on Jordan’s potential.  Like Smith and Dosunmu, he chose Illinois because he wanted to play for his home state team.  Others left when Groce was fired, but not Jordan.  Groce clearly failed to develop this player, so let’s see what Underwood can do with this four-star talent.  I look forward to seeing more of AJ on the court.

NEW YORK, NY – NOVEMBER 25: Te’Jon Lucas
NEW YORK, NY – NOVEMBER 25: Te’Jon Lucas /

The core of the Illini’s young talent is led by sophomore point guard Te’Jon Lucas.  Another one of my favorite players, when Lucas was finally unleashed last year, it was a revelation to Illini Nation.  Lucas just seems to bring a certain energy and joy to the game.  He is creative, dynamic, and fun to watch.  Moreover, as befits a point guard, he makes those around him better.  I was extremely impressed with his ability to manage the floor last year as a freshman, and I expect he’ll get the nod as a starter this year.

Freshman Trent Frazier is one of the most exciting players to commit to Illinois in a long time and not only because of his high energy athleticism.  The 6-foot-2,170-pound guard has a seriously infectious personality and an incredible affinity for Illinois.  He’s just an exciting person, and I cannot wait to see him play.  He will bring energy and point production off the bench.

Da’Monte Williams is reportedly earning the respect and praise of Underwood and his staff.  This 6-foot-3, 185-pound freshman is the son of Illini great, Frank Williams.  Williams has a more reserved demeanor than some of his teammates but he chose the Illini out of loyalty and respect for the great history of the program and the love of his father.  His character is evident by his actions.  I expect Da’Monte to see significant playing time this season, especially in a guard-heavy rotation and a fast-paced offense.

Last but not least in this young but deep backcourt is Mark Smith.  By all reports Smith is one of the most mature and quickly maturing, freshmen Coach Underwood has seen.  And that makes sense considering Smith’s trajectory.  Largely unknown as a high school junior in Edwardsville, Smith was committed to the University of Missouri as a baseball player.  But his senior year of basketball was so impressive that it started to gain the attention of Illinois and many blue blood schools.  Consider how remarkable that is, and what it says about his ceiling.  He went from no one wanting him his junior year, to everyone wanting him as a senior.  At 6-foot-5, 235-pounds, he is a full grown man who already plays better than his four-star ranking.  Smith will have a great career at Illinois, and in the NBA.

The Frontcourt

The Illini have a little more experience in the frontcourt than the backcourt, despite the absence of any seniors playing these positions.  The Illini have added a couple solid freshmen in 6-foot-10 Matic Vesel of Slovenia and 6-foot-9 Greg Eboigbodin from Nigeria. But it is two juniors and a sophomore who will likely dominate the playing time.  You know their names.

Leron Black was a consensus national top-50 recruit in 2014 when he chose the Illini.  He was the Tennessee Mr. Basketball and Gatorade Player of the Year. He started slowly at Illinois, got injured and then got in some trouble.  But as a redshirt sophomore last year, Black rapidly found his way on and off the court.  He averaged eight points and six rebounds per game and recommitted himself to mature behavior in general.  At 6-foot-7, 220-pounds, Black is a fierce player who is ready to have a breakout season. The Illini will need Black to consistently score in double-digits and to average seven to eight rebounds per game.  Look for that to happen starting next month.

Another redshirt junior, Michael Finke, is poised to have a huge year as well.  A 6-foot-10 forward, Finke has an excellent outside shot and potential to develop into a solid and consistent player this year.  He scored about seven points and hauled in just over four rebounds per game last year, shooting 40-percent from beyond the arc. In Underwood’s system, Finke might double his production – or at least get close – and that will be an extremely interesting thing to watch.

Illinois basketball
NEW YORK, NY – NOVEMBER 25: Michael Finke /

Kipper Nichols is another high octane baller.  At 6-foot-6, 225-pounds, he is a similar player to Black.  He is aggressive and talented.  He only played half of the 2016-17 campaign as a freshman because of transfer eligibility rules, but as the year wore on, Nichols playing time increased, and with it, his impact.  He ended the year averaging only five points and three rebounds per game, but those numbers – like Finke and Black – will go up this year.

These are the nine players that will dominate Illinois basketball this year.  It remains a mystery who the starters will be when the season tips off in Champaign against Southern University, but here is my guess at how the rotation will go.

In the backcourt, Lucas will start at point guard.  He will be flanked by Alstork and Smith.  Frazier, Williams and Jordan will see significant action though, and you might see four guards on the floor at the same time depending on the specific matchups brought by the opposing team.

The frontcourt will see Finke and Black as starters.  But expect to see Nichols frequently subbing in for both players.  I also would not be surprised to see Vesel and Eboigbodin with the ball from time to time.  Reports are good on both – especially Eboigbodin – so that will be interesting.  But at the end of the day, this is primarily a nine-man team.

Next: Everything about Talen Horton-Tucker says superstar

All in all, assuming these players can quickly adapt to Underwood’s playing scheme – and stay healthy – look for Illinois to be a threat to get to that “magic” 20-win mark and surprise everybody with a punched ticket to the Big Dance and chip on its shoulder upon arrival.