It is disorienting when, as a lifelong dedicated patron of the world of Illinois men’s college basketball, one reads all the preseason publications and sees the Illini squarely on the NCAA Bracketology bubble. Obviously, there are few fool’s errands more absurd than a Bracketology before a single game has been played: It’s impossible to get that right 10 minutes before they announce the thing, let alone 4 1/2 months. But there’s a certain shorthand conventional wisdom that comes in handy when you’re this far out: You wanna know where your team stands.
Here is where our Illini stand:
- ESPN: 10 seed (vs. Utah). (Just one month ago, ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi didn’t have Illinois in the field at all. Must have been those huge neutral-site wins of the last month.)
- CBS: Last four in (play-in game against Texas).
- Bracketville: Last four in (play-in game vs. Arizona State).
- TeamRankings Bracketology: 40% chance of making the tournament.
You get the picture. I do not remember a time in my history as an Illinois fan in which it is more important for an Illini team to make the tournament. Sure, there would have been bigger surprises; for example, it would have been a shock to see some of the old preseason Top 10 teams to miss the tournament. But I don’t know if it’s ever been more vital for the program to get a bid.
- A program that hasn’t made the tournament since 2013, the longest drought in 40 years.
- A coach who had an .801 winning percentage when he got a here and a .400 winning percentage since.
- Two NCAA tournament victories in the last 14 years.
A potential top 10 NBA Draft pick who returned for his
seniorsophomore* year specifically to guide his team back to the tournament.
- A rabid fanbase that is so desperate for a return to glory that national college basketball editors have learned to omit Illinois from any online polls, about anything, because Illini fans will stuff the ballot box to win.
- A star recruit whose coach actually occasionally refers to him as “Little Shaq.”
- A sophomore big man/social media sensation who might be the single most lovable Illini player since Dee Brown.
- Trent Frazier! I haven’t even talked about Trent Frazier yet!
- The most excitement about any Illinois team heading into the season in a decade.
And yet, with all this... Illinois is still just on the bubble? Don’t get me wrong, I get it: They were 12-21 last season, the worst winning percentage since, my goodness, 1974-75. But if this is season is what the Brad Underwood era has been building to, if you’ve got a top 10 prospect and talent surrounding him and this supposed Underwood Intensity all coming together in this year... for crying out loud, making the tournament should be a fait accompli, no?
This is to say: Imagine what happens if they don’t make the tournament this year. Underwood immediately goes straight to the hot seat. Ayo Dosunmu leaves. More transfers surely ensue. The Illini get the reputation as a team that a top 10 NBA pick in his second season can’t even get to the tourney. The drought dangerously approaches a decade. Roger Powell turns 37. It’s possible they have to start all over again. And when three highly regarded coaches fail in eight years... you start to wonder if maybe the problem isn’t the coaches at all.
All the pieces are there. They should make the tournament. This should be the pivot season. But if it isn’t? What comes next is difficult to fathom. There is so much riding on this season. Too much. I’m terrified already.
I will be back having semi-regular conversations about the Illini with my friend Tommy Craggs this year. But let’s begin with some Illini Power Rankings.
16. Austin Hutcherson + 15. Jacob Grandison
Both of these transfers — Grandison from Holy Cross, Hutcherson from Wesleyan — have to sit out this season. It’s entirely possible, particularly if there are more recruiting bounties where Andre Cubelo came from, that neither plays a minute as an Illini. They’re both 6' 6'' and supposedly both can shoot. But honestly, by the time they’re eligible to play the Presidential election will have already happened and it’s very possible that’s going to be the end of history as we know it so forgive me if I just can’t look that far ahead right now, sorry.
14. Zack Griffith
Everybody’s favorite Fisher Bunny is back for his junior year. He got into five games last year and didn’t score a point. I fully expect him to furiously jump up and down waiting for Tyler Underwood to pass him the ball when they’re beating Lindenwood by 50. He’ll then miss a layup.
13. Samson Oladimeji
The News-Gazette’s Scott Richey thinks he would win a dunk contest over all the other Illini, which makes me happy for him but also a little bit concerned about the rest of the Illini. There was a time in his career at Illinois that, at 6' 4'', he was one of the six tallest Illini. It’s a relief that there are now 11 players taller than him.
12. Jermaine Hamlin
Hey, it’s a tall guy who went to Lincoln High School. Brian Cook is BACK, baby. (Also: Remember when Underwood claimed his son used to wear a Brian Cook jersey when he was a kid. There is no way that is true. I love Brian Cook but no one, not even Brian Cook, ever found it cool to wear a Brian Cook jersey.) Hamlin probably only gets into any games if Kofi and Giorgi are both in serious foul trouble early, and even then only if Kipper is having one of those games where you think Underwood is gonna put him through a wall.
11. Tyler Underwood
As a general rule: When the Illini are winning, no one cares when Tyler Underwood comes in during a non-blowout situation. But if the team is struggling, he’ll become the focus of every angry call to the postgame show on WDWS. He can’t shoot and has obvious physical deficiencies, but he plays hard and he’s sound and he generally makes smart decisions with the ball. But he should be Tyler Cottington, not Sean Harrington. He got into as many games as Samba Kane did last year! Guarantee you he gets into more games than Hamlin too.
10. Benjamin Bosmans-Verdonk
I may regret putting the Belgian this low. His preseason already has everybody talking themselves into him being the new Giorgi, an underrecruited prospect who only Underwood saw the genius of. I don’t really buy it yet, if just because there is only one Giorgi and there will always be only one Giorgi. He feels like a guy who can shoot but can’t do anything else, particularly play defense. But I’d be giddy to be wrong. I will absolutely break my “it’s embarrassing for an adult to wear the jersey of a teenager” rule to get Bosmans-Verdonk on my back.
9. Da’Monte Williams
Would I be more OK with Da’Monte if he didn’t look exactly like Frank Williams, with a body type just like Frank’s, but steadfastly refused to have anything that even slightly resembles the game of Frank’s? Probably! It’s totally unfair. But god damnit, I was told we were getting Frank’s kid, and while this guy is steadfast on defense and Underwood loves him... his offensive game is so sleepy that I find it actively demoralizing to watch him with the ball in his hands. Which is the exact opposite of how it felt watching Frank. And damnit, there I am doing it again.
8. Kipper Nichols
I still believe. I really do! Do not forget what he did at MSG!
(That is the most dramatic music ever put to anything Kipper Nichols has ever done.)
It’s his senior year, and this has to pay off somehow. There have been times when I have thought Kipper Nichols was the best player on the court, by a wide margin. Those times are of course vastly outnumbered by how clueless he is the rest of the time. He has taken years of the lives of multiple Illini coaches now, and he’s done a number on the rest of us as well. I know you’re done waiting around on him, and I totally understand... but I bet he has a monster game when we absolutely need it at some point this year. And then follows it up with zero points and four fouls and six turnovers in 11 minutes.
7. Tevian Jones
Obviously, it's frustrating that he’s suspended, and it’s concerning that this has happened twice now. I’m not sure his loss is that immediate of a problem, considering Jones is someone that you dream on more than you can actually count on. We all thought he’d broken through in that Maryland game, and then he disappeared again. The best possible Illinois team has Tevian operating at optimum capacity. The question is whether we will ever see that.
6. Alan Griffin
In a pinch, you can just have Griffin shoot the shit out of the ball. He didn’t shoot great last year, but because they were so famished for big men, Griffin had to do a bunch of things he shouldn’t have had to. And it turns out: He’s an insanely aggressive rebounder and drives the basket with a ferocity no one saw coming. If the shot starts falling like everyone thought it was going to (and everyone expects it to), Jones can take his time coming back. Griffin is definitely the guy I’m stupidly overexcited about.
5. Andres Feliz
If Illinois were a top 10 — and hey, maybe they will be! — Felix would be making all those national Glue Guy lists. But that is the question, isn’t it? Is Feliz good enough to be the third guy for a legit Top 16 team? I love Feliz, and he’s responsible for as many “drive in transition after the other team just scored a big basketball and get fouled underneath the basket because he’s pushing it so freaking hard” moments as anyone in the sport. But... in an ideal world, shouldn’t that also sort of be Ayo’s and Trent’s job? Feliz isn’t a great shooter, which is a shame, because that’s what I want out of my third guard. I sort of feel the ideal Illini lineup features Feliz as the microwave off the bench rather than having him be the Luther Head. Because he’s not Luther Head. Feliz is a fantastic guy to have on your team. But if he’s one of your best three players... maybe the roster isn’t good enough.
(PROVE ME WRONG, ANDRES. I LOVE YOU AND AM ALREADY SORRY.)
4. Kofi Cockburn
What percentage of announcers are going to get Kofi’s last name wrong this year? (It’s pronounced “Coburn,” if you didn’t know.) A lot, right? Gus Johnson may purposely get it wrong all year. I can’t help but think one of the things that people are most excited about Kofi is that, all told, he looks like one of those guys who is not quite good enough to leave school early but might become a terrifying monster being if he stays all four years, or even three. That’s the strike zone recruit, yes? I’m not sure he’s the precise fit for Underwood’s whole deal — where does he go in a full court press? — but just having a presence like that will change so much in the halfcourt sets. (I bet Underwood cools it on the pressure defense a little bit this year.) And I loved that jumper in the Lewis game. Be ready for growing pains. But he’ll make a difference every second he’s on the court.
3. Giorgi Bezhanishivili
I know it is blasphemy to have him outside the top two, but do put me among the people who are in fact worried about how he and Kofi are going to play together. Giorgi was the ultimate bailout artist, the guy with those lovely dance step post moves, but to pull that off, you need room down there. How much room does he have with Kofi? The ideal deployment of Giorgi would be to have him be a 3-point shooter of course, and while he’s been working on them, I will believe it when I see it. I guess I just wonder how Giorgi fits? It feels like someone has to take a step back, doesn’t it? This is better than not having a Kofi, of course, but there should be concern about whether Giorgi can be Giorgi. Also I love him unconditionally and I would fight to the death for him.
2. Trent Frazier
There were times that Trent and Ayo were flowing Dee-Deron style last year, but, as gorgeous as it was when it worked, they really didn’t have it going consistently. The biggest problem, and it’s one of the biggest issues they’re going to have to solve, is late-game situations: Trent wants to take over because he’s always taken over, but for this team to become its true glorious On The Wings Of Icarus-self, Ayo has to be the stud in the final minutes. Maybe he finds Trent open if they overpursue on him, but Ayo is the driver, not Trent. But Trent has a tendency to force shots in those situations, because in the past he has had to. He doesn’t have to now. If this plays out right, Frazier has a chance to be a true Illini legend in the Kiwane Garris/Frank/Demetri McCamey/Chester Frazier mold. It’s worth noting that he’s the jersey my kids wear, not Giorgi’s or Ayo’s. Few will deserve that trip to the tournament, if it’s coming, more than him.
1. Ayo Dosunmu
And here’s where we find this team’s ceiling. For all the talk about Ayo being a lottery pick, it is worth noting that he hasn’t really played like one, at least not start to finish. Some draft scouts are even a little down on him. I’ve seen him 19th, I’ve seen him 22nd. I’ve seen him out of the first round entirely. But he has the ability, and the opportunity, to get himself into the top 10 easily. If he does that, with the talent around him, this is an easy tournament team, and maybe a top four Big Ten team. He’s the greatest talent on the roster, and maybe the greatest talent they’ve had in a long time. But he has to do it now. All that’s riding on him are the future of a coach and the hopes of a fanbase that wants to scream in joy as much as anyone has ever wanted to scream in joy. Ayo has shown he wants to take all that on his back. Now we get to see if he can do it. Let’s get this going.
Will Leitch is a contributing editor at New York Magazine, host of “The Will Leitch Show” for Sports Illustrated, national columnist 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.
Illinois Men's Basketball faces off against Nicolls State tomorrow, Tuesday November 5th, at 7 p.m. at State Farm Center.
*Updated from "senior" to "sophomore" shortly after publishing, thanks to a reader for catching that.