Richey | Illini have to keep building | Sports

Richey | Illini have to keep building | Sports


CHAMPAIGN — College basketball doesn’t really stop these days. It’s no different than the NBA. They’re both now year-round sports where offseason moves are followed just as closely — if not closer — than the actual games played.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t lulls. Like now for Illinois. Recruiting never, ever stops, of course, but the rest of the offseason extracurriculars have hit a bit of a pause.

The transfer portal has quieted. Players are still coming and going, but the Illini aren’t mentioned with near the frequency as when the more than 1,600 players on the move started making themselves available as the 2020-21 season ended.

Summer workouts are right around the corner, too, but even those won’t start until sometime next week. And Brad Underwood still hasn’t made the final two hires to round out his 2021-22 coaching staff. He will, at some point, but for now he’s still down an assistant coach and another staffer.

An unsettled coaching staff and a likely not-yet-finished roster have created questions leading into the 2021-22 season. But it’s not just any season. It’s a pivotal season for Illinois given the work the last four years to rebuild and revitalize a once-proud program that had fallen into mediocrity.

The Illini got back on the college basketball map last season. They were ranked in the Associated Press Top 25 all year. Competed at the top of the Big Ten and won the conference tournament. Made the NCAA tournament after a lengthy absence.

The challenge now?

Navigating an offseason of change — three assistant coaches on the move and at least one All-American (if not both) heading to the pros — and not letting the rebuild slip and plateau. Not letting two seasons of tearing the program down and two more of building it back up go to waste.

“I think we are still a program on the rise,” Illinois Hall of Fame forward turned radio analyst Deon Thomas said. “I believe we have the potential to be better than we were last year.”

Yes, better than the squad that First Team All-American guard Ayo Dosunmu led to a level of competitive basketball not seen in Champaign in nearly two decades. Part of that belief is rooted in Thomas’ hope that Second Team All-American center Kofi Cockburn ultimately decides to return for his junior season.

Even if he doesn’t, Thomas can rip through the Illinois roster and point out why the level of play shouldn’t dip in 2021-22. Mostly because, in an offseason of change, what Underwood was able to do with the roster.

“Keeping the guys here,” Thomas said. Adam Miller and Jermaine Hamlin departed for LSU and Eastern Illinois, respectively, but the Illini didn’t become nearly the victim of the transfer portal as other programs.

“Keeping the recruits here,” Thomas continued. Luke Goode, RJ Melendez and Brandin Podziemski’s lead recruiters were, respectively, assistant coaches Stephen Gentry, Orlando Antigua and Chin Coleman. All three coaches are gone. All three incoming Illinois freshmen are, well, still incoming Illini freshmen.

“Then getting Da’Monte (Williams) and Trent (Frazier) back does nothing but bolster the toughness and the experience of this Illinois team,” Thomas finished. “This team is going to be stacked. I think the ‘experts’ will hang everything on how good Illinois is going to be if Kofi comes back and rightfully so. He elevates it because there’s no one like him in the country, but this Illinois team is going to be really good regardless.”

Illinois will have backcourt depth. More of the same on the wing with the three freshmen and a healthy Austin Hutcherson. And a different-looking frontcourt in a potentially (likely?) post-Cockburn world, but one that could be better defensively.

But to truly be as good or better than the standout 2020-21 squad?

“What will have to happen is somebody with the mentality of Ayo Dosunmu — the leadership of Ayo Dosunmu, where the guy wouldn’t let you lose,” Thomas said. “Let’s just be honest, that’s rare to find guys like that. If you have to do it from a collective, then you do it from a collective. … Look at the wins those guys were able to put together after Ayo went down after the Michigan State game.

“I believe what you’re going to get from Andre Curbelo is an advancement for him in leadership. There’s very few players in the country like that kid — if any — and I’m expecting him to continue that growth in this coming year.”

The Illini re-entered the college basketball conversation last season. Curbelo and Co., even after an offseason heavy on change, just might be able to keep them there. Then maybe Illinois can stay current with Underwood’s favorite talking point as the No. 11 overall program in the history of college basketball.

Scott Richey is a reporter covering college basketball at The News-Gazette. His email is [email protected], and you can follow him on Twitter (@srrichey).

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