Illinois Basketball belongs in the 2020-21 title conversation

Illinois basketball was among the biggest winners of the NBA Draft withdrawal deadline. With both Kofi Cockburn and Ayo Dosunmu returning to Champaign for at least one more season, the Fighting Illini bring back two stars to a roster that was already at-large caliber. Head coach Brad Underwood now has a loaded group to work with and expectations will be at their highest since the Deron Williams/Dee Brown days.

The big question that remains is: Just how good can Illinois be?

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Well, to answer it simply, the Illini belong in the conversation as a preseason national title favorite. While they might not be in the same tier as Gonzaga, Baylor, and Villanova, they are not that far behind. Illinois has a legitimate argument to be ranked in the preseason Top 10 and will be among the favorites to win the Big Ten. With the Big Ten looking to be easily the toughest conference in America this season, Illinois’ status as a top contender should not be glossed over.

But what makes Illinois so potentially great? Well, unsurprisingly, it all starts with its elite returning duo of Dosunmu and Cockburn. Both experienced major breakout seasons as underclassmen in 2019-20 while guiding Illinois to a strong season. Prior to the cancelation of the postseason, the Illini held a 21-10 (13-7 B10) overall record and were positioned to land a No. 7 seed in the NCAA Tournament (per the Bracket Matrix).

This past season represented the program’s best since 2010-11 in terms of KenPom finish. Not only were they talented but head coach Brad Underwood made timely scheme adjustments, particularly on the defensive end, throughout the year. Looking ahead, they now return 69.5 percent of their total minutes while bringing in the 17th-best recruiting class in the nation. Underwood is also back on the sidelines for his fourth campaign with the program.

Dosunmu is the go-to star every contender needs.

Ayo Dosunmu and Kofi Cockburn are going to be the clear-cut leaders on the court. The duo played exceptionally well together a season ago and are back to get the deep postseason run that was snatched away from them by COVID-19. After all, there were few teams in the country playing as well as Illinois down the stretch of last season. The Illini had won five of their final six heading into the Big Ten Tournament and were clicking on both ends.

Dosunmu was particularly excellent during this period, putting up nearly 20 points per contest on over 50% shooting from the floor. This stretch was not a flash-in-the-pan, though. The 6-5 guard more than earned his place on the All-Big Ten First/Second Team (Media/Coaches) for his efforts throughout the year. He averaged 16.6 points, 4.4 rebounds, and 3.4 assists per game and his shot-selection improved as well.

Dosunmu embraced his playing style as a sophomore, attempting far more 2-point shots than during his inaugural season. He was already a top-tier finisher, but adding an elite mid-range game helped him reach the next level. Dosunmu butters his bread inside the arc, even though experiencing a 3-point resurgence would be a boost.

Data courtesy of BartTorvik.com.

Dosunmu also emerged as one of the nation’s most clutch performers last season. Regardless of the circumstances or defensive coverage, he could get to his spot for a big bucket. Just ask Michigan. Now with two full seasons of experience under his belt, Dosunmu could take another step in his late-game efficiency. When it comes to the postseason, having an elite self-creating bucket-getter is what can take a team over the top. Illinois has just that in Dosunmu.

Cockburn is an anchor on both ends.

While Dosunmu will hold down the star spot on the wing, Kofi Cockburn is coming back to headline the frontcourt. A massive body that eats space inside, Cockburn was one of the best freshmen in the country last season. He averaged 13.3 points, 8.8 rebounds, and 1.4 blocks per contest en route to being named the Big Ten Rookie of the Year. He was particularly deadly in the pick-and-roll as he set devastating screens and slashed hard for finishes.

Defensively, well, good luck moving Cockburn in the paint. The 7-foot, 285-pound monster does not give up an inch of space inside as he makes life extremely difficult for opposing bigs. He blocked a lot of shots last season (5.0% block rate, 162nd nationally) but his impact was felt more with his shot-altering. If he’s in the paint, opponents are going to have a tough time scoring. Illinois ranked 47th nationally in defensive 2-point shooting (45.8%).

As for his overarching impact, Cockburn ranked second in the entire Big Ten in Bayesian Performance Rating (BPR). This statistic measures a player’s impact on his team on both ends of the floor. Cockburn is already a star and he should reprise his role as one of the conference’s elite bigs this season.

Perhaps the biggest improvement for him in Year 2 could be at the free-throw line. He connected on a solid 67.7% of his charity stripe attempts as a freshman but still left a lot of points on the board. This is due to the fact that he ranked 69th in the nation with a whopping 58.0 free throw rate. He simply got the foul line at will and should continue to do so as a sophomore.

Can Frazier lead a 3-point resurgence?

This is the most pressing question facing Illinois heading into this season. While the Fighting Illini were a strong team last season overall, ranking 30th nationally on KenPom, they were abysmal from beyond the arc. They shot just 30.3 percent on 3-point attempts in 2019-20, a mark that ranked in the bottom 50 of the entire country. Thankfully, they understood their own weakness as only 30.6 percent of their total field goal attempts were threes (312th-highest rate).

Alan Griffin, the only Illini who shot better than 31 percent from deep last year, transferred this offseason. Three-point shooting is Illinois’ most glaring weakness and many players will need to step up to supply quality spacing.

Most importantly, though, Trent Frazier needs to experience a resurgence as a sniper. After shooting 141-for-373 (37.8 percent) over his first two collegiate seasons, the 6-2 guard’s 3-point percentage plummeted to just 30.9 percent as a junior. He is easily the most proven high-volume perimeter shooter on the roster, having taken 5+ threes per game in each of his three seasons thus far, and will need to return to his prior form in terms of efficiency.

Frazier’s usage dropped tremendously last season (24.8 percent over his first two years, 17.1 percent last season) and he struggled in the new role. He at least brings ball-handling and experience to the rotation even if not in a starring role. If he returns to shooting 35-40 percent from three, then there won’t be many complementary guards in the country better.

Another Morgan Park product is ready to star.

Additionally, watch for Adam Miller to emerge as one of the Big Ten’s best freshmen. Hailing from the same school as Ayo Dosunmu (Morgan Park, Ill.), the 6-3 guard is ranked as the No. 33 overall prospect in the 2020 recruiting class. He is a talented off-ball bucket-getter with a penchant for knocking down perimeter jumpers. As already discussed, Illinois’ offense could take a big leap this season if a few players emerge as snipers; Miller can be one of those guys.

He is fresh off being named Illinois’ Mr. Basketball and could immediately be inserted into the starting lineup in Champaign. The smooth-shooting southpaw is especially dangerous in catch-and-shoot situations as he moves without the ball well and boasts plenty of range. He should emerge as one of Illinois’ top perimeter threats right away this season. Miller’s fit on this roster is clear, even while being wary of setting too high of a bar for a freshman.

Perimeter shooting is not Miller’s only skill, though. He does an exceptional job attacking close-outs and can score it from the mid-range or at the rim as well. He made a ton of tough shots during his high-school career and is able to create off-the-dribble well. While the Big Ten is a physical league, Miller is well-built and should be able to handle the rigors. He should be a starting-caliber player as long as he defends at a reasonable level.

He also doesn’t have to be a star right away. While he heads to Champaign facing high expectations, his role as a freshman will likely be complementary. With Dosunmu and Cockburn filling the star roles, Miller will be tasked with playing within the offense as a 3-point threat that can also supply some attacking, secondary playmaking, and solid defense. Those kinds of contributions will be exactly what Illinois needs to be a title contender.

Don’t forget about the other newcomers.

It is easy to be excited about what Miller could bring to Illinois, but he is far from the only talented freshman joining the program. Andre Curbelo (No. 44) and Coleman Hawkins (No. 156) are also joining the mix as solid prospects capable of finding playing time, or cracking the starting lineup, during their inaugural seasons with the program. On the whole, 247Sports ranks Illinois’ class as the 17th-best in the country.

Curbelo, a 6-0 pure point guard out of Long Island Lutheran (Brookville, N.Y.), figures to see a sizable role as a talented playmaker. Curbelo boasts elite vision and does an excellent job taking advantage of defensive lapses with his passing and/or ball-handling. He might already be the best playmaker in the program (Frazier is better-suited off-ball). While perhaps not a star this season, his playmaking ability is tremendous and his offensive game should only improve as he adds to his frame and develops more scoring ability. Shooting is his biggest weakness right now.

Moving to the frontcourt, Hawkins is a 6-10 forward that oozes versatility. While playing with Prolific Prep, he competed against some of the best teams in the nation. Hawkins is battle-tested against elite talent and that should aid in his transition to college ball. In terms of what he brings to the floor, you would be hard-pressed to find many frontcourt players that are better shooters and playmakers. He needs to be more physical but is an excellent 3-point threat that makes exceptional passing reads for his position.

Hawkins can give Coach Underwood the option to play a true “4” rather than playing small-ball at that position (like he did last season with Alan Griffin). He is one of the nation’s most underrated freshmen, in my opinion.


Illinois is also bringing in a pair of transfers that should see playing time right away in Jacob Grandison and Austin Hutcherson. Coach Underwood and Co. have prioritized improving their shooting over the past couple of years and it is evident. Grandison and Hutcherson both fit that mold as talented 6-6 transfers that can provide perimeter shooting off the bench.

Illinois’ stars are great, but the coaching staff filling reserve spots with guys who can splash a couple of quick trifectas shouldn’t go unnoticed. It could be the difference between being simply an NCAA Tournament team and being a real contender. Grandison and Hutcherson will both experience significant increases in competition compared to their last stops this season but should nonetheless provide solid spacing. It’s also possible that one breaks through as a potential starter.

Both players sat out last season but shot well in 2018-19. Grandison hit 69-for-189 (36.5 percent) from three for Holy Cross while Hutcherson was 65-for-166 (39.2 percent) for Wesleyan (D-II).

Illinois belongs in the title conversation.

Illinois’ roster boasts a superb mix. With Dosunmu and Cockburn coming back, the Illini have the stars that make national headlines. Perhaps just as importantly, though, there is plenty of talent around them, including massive perimeter shooting personnel improvements. Giorgi Bezhanishvili and Da’Monte Williams are also worthy of your attention.

Those two upperclassmen returners will both return to significant roles this season and add to the core of this roster. Bezhanishvili took a bit of a backseat last year but was still rather solid in his own right. He is a 6-9 forward who can either play alongside Cockburn or be the primary backup off the bench. Williams, on the other hand, is a 6-3 do-it-all guy who can either play on the perimeter or as a small-ball 4. If anyone can fill Alan Griffin’s role from last season, it is Williams.

The Fighting Illini were rock-solid last season as a fringe Top 25 team that went 13-7 in the nation’s best conference. They now return their two stars, bring in three highly regarded freshmen, add substantial shooting talent to their reserves via the transfer market, and still boast solid veterans in Frazier, Bezhanishvili, and Williams. Illinois will start the year ranked in the preseason Top 10 and deservedly so.

Gonzaga, Baylor, and Villanova are the clear preseason favorites to win the national title this season. But is it crazy to think Illinois is right in the mix of Tier 2? Absolutely not. This has the makings of a potentially very special year in Champaign if all goes according to plan.


Lukas Harkins is a college basketball writer for HeatCheckCBB.com and covers the nation with rankings, bracketology, analysis, and recruiting breakdowns. He is currently a Rockin’ 25 voter and is credentialed media for Butler. He previously worked as one of the site experts at Busting Brackets. Harkins graduated from Butler University in 2019 and majored in Healthcare and Business. Originally from Wisconsin.