The Illini are ranked! The Illini are ranked! I know the “not ranked since 2014” stat has been everywhere, but it really cannot be said enough: Illinois basketball not being ranked for nearly six years is a travesty that can never, ever happen again.
The thing about that 2014-15 team was that it didn’t just lose three of its next four to drop out of the rankings for the next five-plus years: It completely collapsed at the end of the year. A four game-win streak in mid-February gave way to three straight losses, a first-round exit in the Big Ten Tournament (one of those horrible ones, where you lose at noon and have to watch everybody else keep playing all day) and a total shutdown in the NIT, a 21-point blowout to an Alabama team that had just fired its coach. (Anthony Grant. Remember when everyone wanted the Illini to hire Anthony Grant?)
For me, that Alabama game was the “wait, John Groce might not be the answer” game; a losing season in 2015-16 and the collapse down the stretch in 2016-17 secured it. In many ways, the last top 25 appearance was the beginning of the end; they had appeared in the top 25 poll at least once for seven consecutive years, and 19 of the last 22, including that 2014 season. If we are ever this excited about being ranked again, something has gone horrifically wrong.
Image: Illinois Basketball head coach Brad Underwood clapping, wearing a grey suit. Photo by Craig Pressman/Illinois Athletics
But for now: Weeeee! Illinois basketball is #24 in the country and #2 in the Big Ten, playing the sort of defense that looks so dramatically different than what we’ve seen over the last two seasons that I sort of can’t believe Brad Underwood is the guy in charge of it. Ever since the Michigan State game, the Illini have had the look of a team that is finally figuring it out. With a week off before a you-better-freaking-kill-them home game against Northwestern, it seemed a good time to break out the old Illinois Basketball Power Rankings here at Smile Politely.
This better not be the peak. This better be just the start.
14. Samson Oladimeji
Seven games, three shots, three rebounds, one block for the guy Scott Richey of the News-Gazette once argued would win a dunk contest among Illinois players. (If this were ever true, it was a sign that Illinois recruiting needed desperately to improve.) For what it’s worth, he was one fewer point on the season than Tevian Jones.
13. Zach Griffith
The former Fisher Bunny walk-on is 2-for-4 on free throws for the year. There is something particularly demoralizing about watching a walk-on miss a free throw. They get their moment to shine, everyone’s silent and staring at them and then... clank. It’s like watching someone punch a puppy. Or a bunny, I guess.
12. Benjamin Bosmans-Verdonk
Remember when, all inspired by Giorgi B’s success last year, we talked ourselves into the Belgian being a factor this season? He has made it into nine games, has nearly as many fouls as shots and has been in a walking boot since the Michigan State game. According to Richey, he can still redshirt if he doesn’t play again this season, and that seems like a good idea for a project like him. The real question: Either way, are we sure there’s a spot for him next year anyway?
11. Tyler Underwood
Other than the few seconds he showed up and did nothing in the Missouri game, Coach’s Kid hasn’t been in a game that ended with a margin of fewer than 20 points since Grand Canyon. No offense to Tyler — who still freaks me out when he’s in the game; it’s like watching a digitally de-aged Coach Underwood lumbering up and down the court — but this is an excellent sign of progress.
10. Tevian Jones
It looks like it’s not going to happen for him this year. Underwood has been smart, since his suspension, about putting him in the first half to try to get him back in the swing of matters, but Jones always looks like he has no idea what he’s doing regardless. After hurting his ankle just a few seconds into checking into the Rutgers game, Jones has another hill to climb. The physical gifts are obvious — he has the body of a superstar; he always looks like he’s going to jump out of the gym — but he’s running out of time to be much help this year. And whether he’ll return in 2020-21 has to be an open question at this point.
9. Jermaine Hamlin
He’s been getting those “rest Giorgi and Kofi” substitutions right before time outs, and on defense, he always seems to be standing in someone’s way, which is a large part of his job description. But anytime he comes near the ball, it looks like he has Legos for hands. He can maybe be helpful in tiny doses — very tiny doses.
8. Da’Monte Williams
Count me among the people who think it’s perfectly fine that he’s starting instead of Alan Griffin. Underwood trusts him more than anyone on the team on defense, and considering the defense is the reason Illinois has won three in a row and is ranked right now, that doesn’t seem like something anyone should mess with. That said: It’s remarkable how completely baffled Frank Williams’ freaking kid looks with the ball in his hands, and he’s an active liability in any halfcourt offensive set. And for what it’s worth: He was getting lit up by Kobe King in the Wisconsin game; the Illini only slowed King down when they put Kipper Nichols on him. If Williams isn’t a defensive stopper, there’s no reason for him to be playing.
7. Kipper Nichols
So it turns out the best possible Kipper we’re going to get, now that we’re finally at his senior year, is a guy who is standing in the right place on defense, using his physical gifts to mess up both wings and bigs alike. That’s enough! That’s fantastic! I still find myself throwing something across the room every other time he touches the ball. And then, out of nowhere, he’ll make some crazy slashing move to the hoop or drain a 3-pointer and we’re back riding the Kipper Koaster again. He has been extremely helpful this season, and I’ll always like his inherent goofiness... but I will always cringe every time he dribbles and, if I’m being honest, when he’s gone, I’ll be about 34% less likely to have a cardiac event during an Illini basketball game.
6. Andres Feliz
Feliz was dealing with the death of a grandparent in the Rutgers game, so it’s impressive he was able to be out on the floor at all. But the game neatly showed both his skills and his deficiencies. The first half, he was reckless and wild and basically looked like he was trying to score eight points on every possession. The second half, he was smart and efficient and got to the hoop with that Chester Frazier-esque relentlessness that makes him so valuable and enjoyable to watch. I wish he could shoot a little better, and I’m not nearly as certain as he is that he should be the guy with the ball as the shot clock runs down, but I’m always glad he’s on our side.
5. Giorgi Bezhanishvili
Watching Giorgi B figured out how he fits in a Kofi world has been quite the experience. He can’t own the lane anymore — though, hmm, it is definitely worth noting how effective he is down there when Kofi’s on the bench — and it’s clear that all those shots he supposedly took over the offseason haven’t made much a difference. Exhibit Z:
He also turns the ball over at a rather insane rate for a big man and has to be setting some sort of illegal-screen-after-a-close-call-went-Illinois’-way-on-the-other-end-of-the-court record. And yet! He still has that magical touch in the post — he makes shot from the strangest angles and velocities — and his defense has quietly improved; he’s the reason Wisconsin’s final possession (after a Giorgi missed free throw) went to shit. (He didn’t even foul. I was certain he was going to foul.) Giorgi B is still a positive on this team despite the radical transformation of his place on it. I don’t love him any less than I always have.
4. Trent Frazier
I loved the Swagger Back Tweet as much as everyone, but as lovely as a Trent 3-pointer is, the real remarkable thing is how he’s basically become the perimeter defensive stopper now. (Something I suspect NBA scouts watching Ayo have noticed.) Trent’s never going to have the freedom that he did his freshman year, and thank god for that. But I’m pretty sure he should play more minutes than anyone on this team. And Ayo’s starting to find him on the perimeter in halfcourt sets, which is extremely exciting. He’s got at least one buzzer beater in him this year.
Image: Illinois Basketball player Alan Griffin smiling at teammate Ayo Dosunmu who is facing away from the camera. Players are wearing white jerseys, Griffin is wearing a black sleeve on his left arm. Photo by Craig Pressman/Illinois Athletics.
3. Alan Griffin
The shot is what we thought it would be when he got here, but who knew he had this much Rodman in him? The best thing that could have happened to him might have been being forced to play as a big last year. It has given him a tenacity that has carried over now that he can play his regular position. This might be my favorite sequence of the year, all told:
That might have been genetically engineered to delight Champaign basketball fans. Griffin is an instant spark with pretty much everything he does, which is why I’m OK with him still coming off the bench. He’s playing down the stretch anyway, and limiting his minutes keeps him out of foul trouble so he can fight for rebounds and drain threes in crunch time. His younger brother is going to Duke, but Griffin looks like he might work himself into being a pro prospect at some point. He’s the wing we were waiting for.
2. Kofi Cockburn
It is astounding that he’s only been playing basketball for three years. Remember how many dumb plays we used to excuse from, oh, Samba Kane, or Greg Oboigbodin, or even Nnanna Egwu, because they had played so little organized basketball? Well, Cockburn has played even less than they have, and he already looks completely comfortable and totally in charge of every possession he’s on the floor. Oh, and he’s 7-foot-1 and 290. And he hits free throws! He's has made Brad Underwood change his entire coaching philosophy, something I would have thought impossible, and he plays the sort of game that the NBA actually doesn’t value much anymore, which means he could turn out to be a superstar who doesn’t leave early. Ayo Dosunmu was supposed to be the paradigm-changing recruit for Illinois. But I’m pretty sure it’s gonna turn out to be Kofi.
1. Ayo Dosunmu
That said. When we look back at the week that got the Illini back in the top 25, it will be important to remember that both games Illinois won that week happened because Ayo took over down the stretch the way an All-Big Ten guard is supposed to. Every single scoring play at the end of both Wisconsin and Rutgers happened because Ayo made it happen, whether it was driving the lane, finding Trent or Griffin for a three or just pulling back and draining one himself. Every successful Illini season has a moment when something so joyous happens that I actively leap out of my chair and start screaming. It’s a grand tradition, one that usually wakes up the rest of the house. This was that moment this year:
At that moment, I realized that Illinois was going to finally beat Wisconsin, and that Ayo Dosunmu was the reason why. He’s probably going to still go pro after this year — even if he’s not even showing up in the second round of some mock drafts — and if he keeps doing that, and gets Illinois back to the tournament, he’ll go down as one of the key players in Illinois basketball history. There isn’t much more exciting than when Ayo starts to feel it. He gets that look in his eye, and you think: “Oh shit: We’re going to win this game.” I’ve missed that feeling. Haven’t you?
Will Leitch is a contributing editor at New York Magazine, national columnist for MLB.com and the founder of Deadspin. He grew up in Mattoon and graduated from the University of Illinois in 1997.
Top Image: Illinois Basketball players walking to bench, two players hugging and smiling. All players are wearing white jerseys. Background of image features out of focus crowd. Photo by Craig Pressman/Illinois Athletics.