The thing that should be most exciting about the 2018-19 Illinois men’s basketball team is actually what’s most disturbing about them. This, theoretically, should be fun. After all, the Illini are total unknowns coming into the season, with only four returning scholarship players from last year’s team and all sorts of high-profile recruits coming in. Those are the most enjoyable teams, right? We all get to watch this exciting new talent emerge and coalesce together: We all have the opportunity to learn and grow together. That’s the joy of a new coach, and a new roster, particularly after the atrophy and relentless sameness of the last one: Let’s see what kind of crazy concoctions these kids come up with.
The problem, of course: We just did this last year. That’s why we were excited about last year’s team. That team turned out to be a serious bummer – the big high-profile recruit stunk and sulked about it, the coach clearly was yelling at a bunch of ears turned away from him, several games were over before you even opened the second beer – so they’ve shaken it all up again. So here we are once more: They’re unknown! They’re exciting! Who knows what they’ll be? They’re young and fearless! They’re callow and experienced! Let’s roll the dice and see what happens!
That trick only works once. This is a team with talent and vigor and good vibes, but it’s also one with a fanbase that’s already starting to lose some patience, particularly with all the recruiting misses that keep piling up. You want to be optimistic. You want to see Ayo Dusunmu wreck some fools. You want to see Trent Frazier dropping treys from the skies. You want to see them run like wild. But we wanted to see all that last year. And we saw 15-17, and then another offseason shakeup. This Illinois team should be better. But it might not be better enough, fast enough. It’s only Year Two for Brad Underwood. But it’s getting late early.
Throughout the season, I will be writing a Illinois Basketball Power Rankings, a look at each player on the roster as a way of figuring out what the Illini have, what they lack, and where this is all going. It will hopefully be amusing and informative but I can’t guarantee you anything. I’ll also be having monthly conversations with my friend Tommy Craggs, the best writer to come out of Central Illinois since Robert Novak, about the state of this team and this program. I don’t know if we’ll enjoy what happens this season or we won’t, but damnit, whatever happens, we’ve got to go through it together.
16. Zach Griffith
Has Illinois ever had a player from Fisher before? Run, Fisher Bunnies, run! Anyway, he’s a local walk-on kid who grew up loving the Illini like the rest of us; he says some of his first memories were watching the Illinois-North Carolina national championship game, which makes us feel impossibly old. He’ll get a few minutes in the Mississippi Valley State trying to chase down the other walk-ons who won’t pass him the ball.
15. Drew Cayce
Here’s a disturbing stat: Cayce, the “look there’s the white guy!” walk-on we’ve been seeing at Illinois since the days of Tyler Cottingham and Eddie Manzke, averaged more points per game than Matic Vesel did last year. Vesel, you may remember, was the off-the-radar scholarship dude that Underwood kept telling us had potential and just needed to get more reps. He is now long gone. Drew Cayce will outlast us all.
14. Samson Oladimeji
Last year he was at one point, at 6-foot-4, one of the six tallest players on the Illini roster. That’s no longer the case, though I’m still not sure the frontcourt is actually any better. Anyway, he played 15 minutes last year. I like to think he and Drew Cayce are good friends and make fun of Tyler Underwood behind his back.
13. Tyler Underwood
Because his name isn’t “Mark Smith,” apparently, Junior Underwood had to sit out a year after transferring from Oklahoma State. He actually got into 11 games for Oklahoma State a couple of years ago, and he hit a couple of charity treys. It is to Dad Underwood’s credit that we didn’t see Junior in a single game last year. If this thing goes off the rails this year, I want it to really go off the rails, with Tyler getting major minutes when we’re down 35 to Michigan State as Tevian Jones and Alan Griffin scowl on the bench. If you’re gonna go down, go down in glorious flames.
12. Samba Kane
The name is obviously epic: You almost think that name alone has to be worth a block or two. Unfortunately, from all accounts, he appears to have no idea what he’s doing on the basketball court: The reports of the, uh, “high energy” Giorgi Bezhanishvili making vicious fun of him during open practice would be funny if they didn’t sound sort of mean, particularly for a dude who has only been out of Senegal for two years. He’s seven feet tall, which so far is the only thing positive anyone has to say about him. I can see how you can dream on him becoming Nnanna Egwu in four years, but that’s unlikely to happen and it’s certainly not going to happen this year. If they’re forced to play him even close to the 10-minutes-a-game the now-departed Greg Eboigbodin got last year, we are so, so doomed.
11. Anthony Higgs
Of all the new guys, he’s the one you hear the least about. He was a late signee, so he’s surely already behind, but he also has, you know, actually played basketball before, so at 6-foot-8, he’s gotta at least be ahead of Samba. He’s a left-handed big dude, which is always novel and good for at least a couple post buckets against a confused East Tennessee State defender. Though he might not be available to play by that game on December 15: He’s got a foot injury that has kept him out of a lot of practice. He may end up being one of those redshirts who you forget is on the team when he transfers out in a year.
10. Alan Griffin
His dad is Adrian Griffin, who somehow rattled around the NBA for nine years, a fact I cannot belive is true. (You probably remember him most from Seton Hall.) The kid is a shooter out of New York, an Orlando Antigua recruiting special, though Antigua’s contributions mostly seem so far to me to be limited to “recruiting players from places we don’t usually recruit people from.” Supposedly he can shoot, and lord knows Illinois needs some of those dudes, but he’s still a freshman with not just other freshmen ahead of him, but also Aaron Jordan. The best case for Griffin is being a better Aaron Jordan, which doesn’t strike me as particularly impossible.
9. Adonis De La Rosa
I’ve lost a considerable bit of patience with transfers in recent years, particularly ones who were Awesome At A Mid-Major Imagine What They’ll Do When Surrounded By More Talent. (Mark Alstork and Mike Thorne have scarred me to the whole concept. I’m actually afraid to make a bank transfer at this point.) He’s still recovering from an ACL injury, which is even more worrisome. I get the idea of what they were going for here, particularly at a place of extreme need. But I will believe this dude has anything to contribute when I see it.
8. Tevian Jones
I might regret having this guy this low by the end of the year. He’s been Dosunmu’s alley-oop buddy in practice and, in theory, is exactly the type of dude Underwood is always saying he is wanting.
My fear is: a) He can’t shoot, and b) because he’s 6-foot-7 he’ll end up having to guard big ugly Michigan State linebacker dudes who will skin him alive. But if the Underwood stuff is gonna work, this is the sort of guy who should be the magic sprinkling.
7. Aaron Jordan
That Jordan has actually made it this far without ever transferring – and it sure was close quite a few times – is its own sort of victory. (He is now the team’s only senior.) The only thing he was ever supposed to be able to do was shoot threes, but he never did until last year, when, whoa, did he really shoot 46 percent from three last year? That will work if he can pull that off again. He actually had the second-most threes on the team (behind Trent), which I absolutely did not realize. His shot still looks insane – it looks like he is pushing a rock up a hill – but if he can hit 46 percent again, he’ll get every opportunity, particularly on the break, to fire at will.
6. Andres Feliz
He’s the guy all the beat reporters have been raving about after the scrimmages. He’s a former JUCO All-American who Underwood says has “an old man's game,” and the beat reporters keep saying he “never steps a foot wrong” in practice. I’ll confess, that sounds a little bit like, “he’s not very good, but everyone else is so young and reckless he looks experienced and savvy compared to their constant falling all over themselves,” but whatever, there’s a ton of young dudes, maybe he can provide a little stability. Maybe he’s what we all thought Ahmad Starks was going to be but absolutely, positively wasn’t.
5. Giorgi Bezhanishvili
Oh, Giorgi. He’s already won the “this dude is fuckin’ nuts” trophy from essentially every practice: Every writer describes him as unquestionably going to get punched in the face at some point in his Illini career. Which is cool, right? We could use a guy like that. I love guys like that. He’s like a mean, Eastern European Lucas Johnson. That’s the good part. The bad part is that because the Illini have zero humans to play the four or the five, they’re going to need Giorgi to take on big minutes right now. He might be a pain in the ass to opponents, but he’s also going to need to actually know how to play at some point. Underwood calls him “the second-smartest freshman he’s ever coached” – the first was future Knicks guard Bill Walker, famous mostly for his towel-peeing — but I bet he spends the first two months sitting the bench by the second TV timeout because he already has three fouls. I’ll surely love him in three years, though, assuming we’re all still alive then.
4. Da’Monte Williams
My lord he looks like Frank sometimes. It’s scary. Da’Monte is emotionally my favorite player, not just because he looks and runs so much like Frank – but wow, right? – but also because he always seems to have a reservoir of talent he’s this close to tapping into. (Also like Frank, now that I’m thinking about it.) Underwood says he’s all the way back from his ACL injury and is ready to be the explosive talent off the dribble he knows he can be. We said that about Frank too. I want him to dominate and also procreate while in college so we can do all this again in 15 years.
3. Kipper Nichols
When he’s on, he looks like the best player on the court by a wide margin: I know you don’t want to think about that sad nooner loss to Iowa in front of sad, bored MSG crowd during the Big Ten tournament, but do not forget how badass he was in that game. I’m still not sure he has a natural position, but Underwood doesn’t seem to like natural positions anyway: I’m OK with him just being “crazy putback rebound guy.” He does tend to disappear at times, something we won’t be able to afford from him, particularly as one of the few upperclassmen. I’d love to see him get a little Leron Black in his game. But yeah: I’m excited.
2. Trent Frazier
Frazier is the No. 1 piece of evidence for Brad Underwood at this point. An undersized, underrecruited dude who has that crazy competitive eye-of-the-tiger shit that Underwood just eats up, Frazier is at least some proof, in a vacuum, that the Underwood style of just finding lunatic “winners” has value. Underwood clearly adores him, and the feeling appears to be mutual: If you want to know why Mark Smith transferred, just look at all that Trent Frazier was and he wasn’t. I worry a bit about a sophomore regression now that there are more alpha dogs in the backcourt – since Frazier clearly steamrolled Smith, something I’d totally love to see again at the Braggin’ Rights game in December, now that you mention it – but he’s the raw-meat-snarling-dog that Underwood promised we were going to have everywhere. We’re gonna need a lot more of them. But there’s no question that we have at least one.
1. Ayo Dosunmu
All right, let’s see it. The highest ranked recruit we’ve gotten since... jeez, looks like Dee Brown, right? The fourth-highest of the last 20 years – tied with, er, Jereme Richmond, *gulp* – and clearly the biggest sign that Underwood would do what it took to get Chicago kids in line, even if, well, it didn’t exactly open the floodgates. From all accounts, he and Frazier have become best pals on and off the court, which leads to all sorts of Dee-Deron tingles. But easy there: This is the type of crap I was saying about the last Illinois Mr. Basketball to come here, and he has stupid MIZNOZ on his jersey now. But what Illinois needs is a star to show everyone that this thing is real, that this is gonna be Illinois Basketball again, that the studs of high school can be studs here. I’ve actually seen him on some NBA Draft boards, and wow, it’s nice to see that happening again. They need him to be everything, and they need him to be everything immediately. No pressure or anything, but Ayo, well, we’re going to need you to justify the last decade of Illini basketball fan pain the minute you step on the court. Thanks, kid! We’re all counting on you! Good luck!
Will Leitch is a contributing editor at New York Magazine, host of “The Will Leitch Show” for Sports Illustrated, national correspondent for MLB.com and the founder of Deadspin. He grew up in Mattoon and graduated from the University of Illinois in 1997. He owns many attractive ties.
Illini Men's Basketball faces off against Evansville Thursday, November 8th at 7 p.m. CST
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