CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (AP) — Illinois is counting on a youth movement built around two four-star recruits and the health of highly touted sophomore guard Da’Monte Williams to resurrect a program that last year managed just four Big Ten wins.
The Illini posted a 14-18 record overall last year, something second-year coach Brad Underwood thinks can be improved upon despite his team’s youth and inexperience.
“This is the youngest team that I’ve been a part of since I was a junior college coach and had a team every year of all freshmen,” Underwood said. “That’s exciting. It’s brought a youthful exuberance to our practices. It’s a group of guys that is helping lay a foundation. I feel very, very good about the fact that what we’re doing is laying a tremendous foundation for the future with this group.”
Illinois has missed the NCAA Tournament the past five years and posted a dismal 41-67 record in conference play. Last year ended with a first-round loss to Iowa in the Big Ten Tournament.
“I do think we’re developing an identity,” Underwood said. “I think that’s something that we strived very, very hard for. I’m really excited. It’s a year that we play the toughest schedule in the history of Illinois basketball. We have 27, 28 high major games. Strength of schedule sure won’t be a problem for us. It’s about growth for us. That’s something that we’re getting better at every day.”
Six new recruits join the Illini this fall: Ayo Dosunmu and Tevian Jones, along with Giorgi Bezhanishvili, Alan Griffin, Anthony Higgs and Samba Kane. Dosunmu and Griffin will be in the backcourt, Higgs and Jones are small forwards, Bezhanishvili is a power forward, and Kane will play center behind probable starter Adonis De La Rosa. A 6-2 guard, Dosunmu is rated as the No. 32 recruit nationally and is expected to immediately join the starting lineup. Jones also is expected to contribute early on.
Among the familiar names who have left are last year’s best player, Leron Black, along with Mark Alstork, Michael Finke, Clayton Jones, Cameron Liss, Greg Eboigbodin, Te’Jon Lucas and Matic Vesel. Black decided to skip his final year of eligibility after graduating while Finke transferred to Grand Canyon. The loss of both Black and Finke (a big man who rotated between power forward and center) will be particularly tough on an already inexperienced team.
THE NEW BIG MAN
Graduate transfer De La Rosa is a 7-foot center and is expected to see major playing time, although Underwood says he’s still evaluating him.
“I’ll refrain from how I see him fitting in until I actually see him on the court. But he’s quietly become one of our leaders.” Underwood said. “I’ve called him a basketball savant. I’ve never been around a young guy that has not participated. He knows everything that we did last year. He knows every call, he knows every play. He’s got it on his iPad.”
Talented guard Williams, son of former Illini star Frank Williams, tore his ACL four games into the 2017-18 season and missed the rest of the year. Underwood said the knee is fully healed, although Williams is expected to wear a bulky brace as a precaution. It’s also unclear how much playing time the sophomore will see, at least early on. Williams is one of six returners for Underwood, who tends to lean on veterans down the stretch.
Illinois opens its season at home Nov. 8 against Evansville and then gets Georgetown on Nov. 13. That’s followed by a trip to the Maui Classic and a date against No. 3 Gonzaga on Nov. 19. A trip to Notre Dame follows before the Big Ten opener at Nebraska on Dec. 2.
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