Davis’ Deep Dives: No. 19 Illinois basketball season preview 2021-22

Even without Ayo Dosunmu, Illinois basketball has the makings of another Big Ten contender.

Riley’s Ranking: 15th

Oh, Illinois, have you still not learned? Weren’t you listening when J. Cole rapped “pride is the devil” this summer??

Think back to March. Shortly after winning the Big Ten Tournament, Ayo Dosunmu posted a flick of himself imitating an iconic Kobe Bryant championship photo. That picture celebrated one postseason victory while also signaling the pursuit of the ultimate goal. Yet … the Illini promptly lost in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, as Cameron Krutwig served up a slice of humble pie. 

Fast forward to July, and Illinois still brandished a rather brash persona on social media. This time, Kofi Cockburn was the culprit. After flirting with Kentucky in the transfer portal, he announced his return to Champaign with a  “KING’S BACK.” … The same king who got cooked by Mr. Krutwig three months earlier. 

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Look, I know I sound like an old man complaining about athletes on social media. But maybe exercising a little more prudence would be beneficial? 
To be fair, Kofi has proven himself as college basketball’s most indomitable force. It doesn’t matter if three defenders swarm him in the post, he still can fight through them.

Cockburn owns real estate at the rim; whether he rolls to the hoop, skies for an alley-oop, or beats his man for position, the junior scores at will around the basket. Just check the numbers: Kofi led the country in dunks and made 76.3 percent of his shots at the rim (per Hoop-Math). In addition, his offensive rebounding (9th nationally in OR% in 2021) indicates that even a missed shot can lead to a positive outcome.

But teams feel his impact equally on the defensive end. Per KenPom, the Illini boasted the 7th-best defense in the country. But when Kofi left the floor? Well, Illinois’ interior D fell apart.

Image from Hoop-Explorer

In what will likely be his last year in college, Cockburn seems like a lock for a second consecutive All-American team. Perhaps he can even get crowned with National Player of the Year honors. 

However, Cockburn can’t carry the Illini on his own. That’s where sophomore Andre Curbelo steps in. The Puerto Rico product will serve as his running mate, hoping to fill the enormous shoes of Dosunmu. Last season, Curbelo starred as a sixth man, but his play indicated readiness for a feature role. In particular, the 6-1 guard looks deadly with the rock in his hands. He keeps the ball on a string, toying with defenders who think they can contain him.

As the clip above illustrates, Curbelo utilizes his handle to get to the rim with ease. Per Hoop-Math, he took just over half of his shots at the rim and converted a sterling 63.6 percent of them.

But Curbelo’s passing acumen is his most eye-popping attribute. Dimes out of ball screens, skip passes to the corner, and full-court outlets all appear routine for the sophomore. The clip below highlights a live-dribble pass delivered right into the shooting pocket of Adam Miller:

Curbelo led the Big Ten in assist rate last season and will hope to repeat in that category this year. And if he cleans up his turnovers and improves his 4-point shot, a transcendent season could be in store.

Alongside Curbelo and Cockburn, the Illini possess a trio of terrific role players that completes the starting five. Fifth-year Trent Frazier fills the other backcourt slot, providing the Illini with floor spacing and filthy perimeter defense. On occasions, the lefty will even heat up and take over games (such as this ugly overtime win versus Indiana). On the wing, fifth-years Da’Monte Williams and Jacob Grandison star as low-usage glue guys with complementary skills. Williams guards multiple positions and does one thing and one thing only on offense: cash corner threes. Grandison, on the other hand, has a little more dynamism to pair with his dirty work. For instance, he willingly sets screens and grabs boards, but he also strongly attacks closeouts.

Thus, even without Ayo, the starting five has enough firepower to keep Illinois’ offense atop the Big Ten. Plus, as Kevin Sweeney points out here, Brad Underwood masterfully coaches his guards and bigs to work in tandem to open up driving lanes. The head coach again has the personnel to execute this program tenet. 

Beyond the starters, Illinois ushers in a bench that offers an intriguing blend of experience and upside. In the frontcourt, Florida transfer Omar Payne will alleviate some of the pressure on Cockburn to anchor the defense. When Kofi sits, Payne can capably patrol the paint. I also still believe in sophomore Coleman Hawkins, a high-IQ big with a pure stroke. Perhaps a mini-breakout lurks in his near future. Lastly, top-100 freshman Luke Goode could earn some minutes as small-ball 4 due to his prolific shooting. 

Underwood added to the perimeter corps with Utah transfer Alfonso Plummer and freshmen RJ Melendez and Brandin Podziemski. Plummer, another Puerto Rican, shoots on the move better than anyone else on the roster. His ability to curl off screens and splash trey balls should make him the first man off the pine:

The two freshmen will play mainly in spot minutes, but both teem with potential. Melendez — No. 3 in the Puerto Rican pipeline — is a 6-7 catch-and-shoot threat with some bounce to his game, and Podziemski is yet another left-handed three-point marksman. 

Finally, a healthy Austin Hutcherson will factor in at the 3 and 4-spots. A back injury kept the former D-3 standout out of action last season. But after a year of learning the system, he has an edge on the freshman for playing time.

It’s rare that a team can lose an All-American guard and two assistant coaches and still stay in the Top 25. Credit Underwood for what he has constructed in Champaign, as the Illini will again be one of the most balanced teams in the Big Ten.

TL/DR:

Projected starters: G – Andre Curbelo (So.); G – Trent Frazier (Sr.); G/F – Jacob Grandison (Gr.); G/F – Da’Monte Williams (Sr.); C – Kofi Cockburn (Jr.)

Projected bench: G – Alfonso Plummer (Grad); F/C – Omar Payne (Jr.); F – Coleman Hawkins (So.); G – Austin Hutcherson (Gr.); G – RJ Melendez (Fr.)

Strengths: Getting to the rim; defense; depth

Weaknesses: Streaky shooting; youth

Best player: Cockburn

Breakout player: Curbelo

Header image courtesy of Illinois Athletics.