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30 teams in 30 days 2022-2023 college hoops preview: No. 29 Illinois Fighting Illini

As hard as it is to believe, college basketball tips off in just about one month from now - and to get you ready for the season, Aaron Torres Online will be giving you 30 previews in the coming 30 days to get you ready for the start of the year, written by the Torres Online team.

Yesterday, Zac Krull started us off with the Memphis Tigers - and today, we move to the Illinois Fighting Illini. The Illini are coming off what is unquestionably the best three-year stretch in decades, which includes a Big Ten regular season title, a Big Ten tournament title and a No. 1 seed in the 2021 NCAA Tournament.

But with a rebuild roster centered around two marquee transfers and a freshman point guard, what are realistic expectations for the Illini? Let's look into it

Illinois Fighting Illini

How it went down in 2021-2022

Just one season after earning a No. 1 seed in the 2021 NCAA Tournament and winning the Big Ten Tournament, the 2022 season was in some ways, even more successful for the Illini. Illinois finished with an overall record of 23-10 and a conference record of 15-5, tied for the best record in the league and allowing the Illini to clinch their first conference regular season title since 2005. Those two seasons could also be attached to the 2020 season which ended prematurely by the pandemic. Brad Underwood has built a winning culture with a group of primarily the same players, ranging from Ayo Donsumnu to Kofi Cockburn to Trent Frazier and Alfonso Plummer and Giorgi Bezhanishvili, guys who bought into Underwood's original vision for the program and saw it all the way through.

Looking at last season, there were plenty of regular season highs, including sweeping a Michigan team that made the Sweet 16 for the fifth consecutive NCAA Tournament and going on the road to Iowa and beating the Hawkeyes in impressive fashion.

Unfortunately, the Illini again failed to play their best basketball when they got to the most important time of year however, as they were upset by Indiana in their opening game of the Big Ten Tournament and lost in the Round of 32 to Houston. Some would argue that the tourney loss was a bit of dumb luck, as the Houston game marked the second season in a row Illinois was matched up against a top 10 ranked KenPom team, and both years, Illinois teams that entered the tournament with so much promise, lost earlier than most anticipated. In 2021 it was to Loyola-Chicago and in 2022 it was to a Cougars squad which would advance to a second straight Elite Eight.

Brad Underwood has done a phenomenal job turning around the Illinois program since arriving in Champaign, but he is just missing that one deep postseason run that Illinois fans have been craving since 2005.

There were many moments throughout the 2022 season that Illinois looked like the best team in the Big Ten, and capable of making a deep run in the month of March.

Now, after losing most of the core from the Illini's historic three-year run - including the top five scorers from last year - Illinois enters this season with uncertainty.

But a lot of excitement as well.

What You Need To Know About 2022-2023

Key Returnees: Coleman Hawkins, RJ Melendez, Luke Goode

Key Losses: Kofi Cockburn, Trent Frazier, Alfonso Plummer, Andre Curbelo, Jacob Grandison, D’amonte Williams

Key Transfers: Terrence Shannon Jr. (Texas Tech), Matthew Mayer (Baylor), Dain Dainja (Baylor)

Key Recruits: Skyy Clark, Ty Rodgers, Jayden Epps, Sencire Harris

In most circumstances, when a team loses each of its top five scorers from the previous season, expectations would be that they would take a step back. That is not the case with this Illinois group, as very few teams had a more successful offseason despite losing a lot of talent.

With star Kofi Cockburn among many notable players gone, sophomore Coleman Hawkins will be the Illini’s top returning scorer from last season. And if you simply look at his numbers, you might not come away all that impressed. With that being said, anyone who watched Illinois last season knows Hawkins improved while looking more and more comfortable on the floor throughout the season and should be in store for a massive leap, while in a bigger role this season. Hawkins averaged 5.9 points and 4.3 rebounds in only 19 minutes of game action, while becoming Illinois’ most effective defender in 2022. At 6’10” 215 lbs. Hawkins may even find himself playing some small ball 5 with the bevy of wing players Illinois has this season. Hawkins should be at the top of any breakout players in the Big Ten list, as he has only improved since he arrived in Champaign two years ago as a true freshman.

Similar to Hawkins, RJ Melendez didn’t get a ton of playing time as a freshman, appearing in just 22 games, averaging 3.8 points in 8.5 minutes of average action. Considering the number of upperclassmen Illinois had ahead of Melendez it isn't surprising, but the youngster did show some signs of encouragement as the season went on. After having some trouble getting on the floor consistently during Big Ten play, Melendez found himself getting prominent minutes in the Illini rotation by the time postseason play came around. He scored nine points in Illinois’ Round of 32 NCAA Tournament loss to Houston, showing flashes of greatness many times during the short span. With great size at 6’7 Melendez should add to the lengthy, intimidating group of wings, plus the ability to score the basketball will have the Puerto Rico native in for a big season.

Heading to the transfer portal, there are plenty of coaches who view it similarly to professional sports free agency: A place for filling small holes and adding some talent. However, it is rare to bring in transfers and assume they will quickly change your culture and be the missing pieces to take the next step as a program. Brad Underwood did a great job adding two transfers that at one point in their careers, looked like locks to be drafted into the NBA and have had success at the highest levels of college basketball.

First Illinois added Terrence Shannon Jr. from Texas Tech, who has played the last three seasons in Lubbock. Shannon burst onto the scene as a freshman, averaging 9.8 points per game and rising on NBA Draft boards. After another productive 2021 in which he finished second on the Red Raiders in scoring, Shannon struggled in 2022 missing 11 games to injury and things didn’t feel like they had the same momentum for him compared to the two previous seasons. Now Shannon will return to his home state of Illinois (he's from Chicago originally) after scoring over 900 points in his college career, and also bringing additional NCAA Tournament experience. Shannon was named All-Big Ten first team in a preseason vote.

In addition, Shannon wasn’t the only big-time transfer Illinois added, as they also brought in Matthew Mayer from Baylor. Mayer’s pedigree is very similar to Shannon’s, considering he also looked like a sure-fire pro at one point in his career. It just didn’t work out as planned, and now a change of scenery could be what was needed to ultimately see that success.

Mayer spent each of the last four seasons at Baylor, which included three NCAA Tournament berths and the 2020 season, which Baylor 26-4 overall in position to get a No. 1 seed before the season got shut down due to the pandemic. Mayer was a key member of the 2021 National Championship team, scoring 17 points in the Bears' Round of 32 victory over Wisconsin and 12 points in their Final Four victory over Houston. Adding a player like this with a ton of experience succeeding at the highest level will be crucial for an Illinois program that has done a really nice job winning in the regular season but is still attempting to get over that postseason hump.

Illinois also added the No. 10 ranked recruiting class in all of college basketball, which is the highest rated class for the program since 2011. This recruiting class features four prospects ranked in the top 109 prospects in the country and all four of them could see a featured role on this Illinois team.

Most notable is former Kentucky commit Skyy Clark, who decommitted from the Wildcats and ended up at Illiniois. He will be relied upon heavily, as the primary ball handler. Clark is a natural point guard who can penetrate the lane and score or set up teammates for easy looks. He does a great job using his strength well to create space to get his shot off or to get past his defender to the rim. Having a freshman at the point guard spot could be the one hole of this Illini team that Brad Underwood may have to fix, but Clark is a very talented player that should see a major role with this Illini team.

In addition, Illinois brings in Ty Rodgers, a power forward from Harvey, Illinois, who should also contribute for the Illini right away. Rodgers spent his summer playing in the FIBA U18’s for Team USA and he made his presence known right away enroute to a gold medal. Jayden Epps and Sencire Harris also come in as highly touted high school prospects, meaning the depth this Illinois team has should serve as a major strength.

In today’s version of college basketball it is pretty rare for freshmen to be contributing in a major way especially for the best teams. With that being said this class should suit Illinois well, considering they have four really good freshmen, but none of them are going to be expected to come in right away and be the star by themselves. Brad Underwood has built this team nicely with a great mix of veterans, transfers and freshmen to provide experience and perspective from any player with any background.

Schedule Breakdown:

Illinois will play in a few games against mid-major competition, before starting Feast Week with a bang, playing in the Continental Tire Main Event. This event should be one of the premier events during Feast Week as Baylor, UCLA and Virginia, who all should start the season ranked, will be joining the Illini in Las Vegas. Illinois’ first game of the event will be against a UCLA team that is fresh off spending the majority of last season ranked in the Top 10 and making the Final Four the season prior. With main contributors like Jamie Jaquez Jr. and Tyger Campbell returning from those teams alongside a top-notch recruiting class featuring Amari Bailey, this should be one of the bigger matchups during all of Feast Week. The winner will be taking on the winner of Baylor and Virginia, which guarantees Illinois will be facing two really good teams during this event and we all should get a better idea of who exactly this Illini team is early in the season.

Illinois will also face a Texas team expected to be ranked in the Top 20 in the Jimmy V Classic in New York City in the early portion of the month of December. The Texas game should be a unique challenge, considering the Longhorns should be on a similar level to the Illini in 2023 and Terrence Sahnnon Jr. will be facing his former head coach at Texas Tech, after going 2-0 against Chris Beard last season. Also in December is a game with Syracuse in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. The Illini have won their last two games in the event against Duke and Notre Dame.

The non-conference slate will end with Illinois playing their traditional non-conference rival in Missouri, which should be improved in the first year of the Dennis Gates era. In the Big Ten, Illinios will face teams like Michigan, Michigan State, Purdue and Iowa only once which should serve them well.

There is a home-and-home with Indiana, a team that many believe is the best in the Big Ten entering the year.

What to Expect in 2022-2023

Despite there being a ton of new faces in the locker room, there is no reason why this can’t be a very successful season for Illinois. Between Coleman Hawkins, RJ Melendez, Terrance Shannon Jr. and Matthew Mayer, there isn’t a better, deeper, group of wings in the sport. Having these players on the wing is vital - any team that wants to have success in March needs guys that have proven themselves capable. And Illinois has that.

Despite not having a deep NCAA Tournament run just yet, Brad Underwood has established himself as one of the premier coaches in college basketball. Since the start of the 2014 season, Underwood has won at least 20 games six separate times, including going 89-14 overall during his three years at Stephen F Austin, leading Oklahoma State to the NCAA Tournament in his only year there, and getting Illinois to each of the last two NCAA Tournaments. With a more fortunate draw Illinois’ deep run could have come sooner but facing severely under-ranked Loyola Chicago and Houston in each of the last two NCAA Tournaments did them no favors.

With a ton of players on the wing, and very good freshmen and transfers coming in, Illinois should be back competing at the top of the Big Ten for a championship, even despite the losses in production.

This group however is different, with two breakout candidates in Hawkins and Melendez plus two transfers in Shannon and Mayer who are proven, while also having something to prove.

Read previous previews here:

No. 30 Memphis Tigers

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