Illinois Basketball: Season expectations heading into the opener

NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 25: Te'Jon Lucas
NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 25: Te'Jon Lucas /

The 2017-2018 NCAA college basketball season is upon us, and with that comes many questions for fans.  Many fans don’t know what to expect, while others are very confident that their team will again be elite.  For Illinois basketball fans, recent heartbreaking years cause them to be a little anxious heading into the season.

The Illini have failed to make the NCAA tournament in each of the last four seasons, so there is some reason to be a little on edge as an Illini fan.  But, I’m here to tell you that you should be very confident in the Illini heading into the upcoming campaign.

Recently, the Illini dropped an exhibition to mid-major DI Eastern Illinois by double-digits.  While some fans are overreacting and worried about the team, I’m still convinced that Illinois will be back in the NCAA tournament this year.

Yes, this is a very bold prediction for such a young and inexperienced team.  But I think there are many positive aspects of Brad Underwood’s squad that will carry them into the tournament.

The Illini return sophomore starting point guard Te’Jon Lucas, who I really thought had some impressive spurts at the end of last year.  Leron Black, Kipper Nichols and Michael Finke will be huge, as they are the veterans of the group.  I think the key, however, will be the play of the newcomers.

This has to start with graduate transfer Mark Alstork, who averaged 19.0 points per game last year at Wright State.  Although the Horizon League is much different than the Big Ten, I really think Alstork will develop into a top scoring option and fill the huge void left by the departure of Malcolm Hill.

Another key newcomer will be Mark Smith, the reigning Illinois Mr. Basketball award winner.  Along with freshmen Trent Frazier and Da’Monte Williams, these guys have to come up big for the Illini to succeed.

With all of these guys, plus a few other pieces, I think the fast style of play of Brad Underwood will really succeed in the Big Ten for years to come.  Because of this, I believe the Illini will finish much better than the 13th ranked team in the conference, as Sports Illustrated believes.

All of these things considered, I strongly believe the Illini will finish in the middle of the pack of the Big Ten.  They will finish with two losses in non-conference play, an 11-2 mark, and their conference record will be 9-9.  So, I think that this year’s Illini team will finish 20-11 in the regular season and, assuming they win at least a game or two in the Big Ten Tournament, they will reach the NCAA tournament.

Next: 3 players who need to step up for the Illini

Fighting Illini fans should not worry about this season, and they especially shouldn’t worry about future seasons under Underwood.  Their first handful of games might be a little ugly but remember, this team has to learn to not only play together but play in Underwood’s system.  The future is very bright for Fighting Illini basketball.