This is the sort of introduction that is meant to serve partly as a stakes-defining, here’s-what-we’re-in-for table setter and partly as a hype video for the upcoming Illinois men’s basketball season. But I hope you will forgive me: My heart is not in it.
Two undeniable facts, the fundamental facts of this Illinois season, both collide and intersect, and they are all that matter. It is impossible to discuss any aspect of this season and avoid either one:
- This is the best Illinois men’s basketball team since 2005, and maybe one of the best of all time, one that is poised to release perpetually doomed but desperately persistent Illinois fans from 15 years in the college basketball wilderness. Everything we have been hoping for appears to be finally coming true this season.
- It is very possible that this season will not happen, or not be completed, and you can make a very legitimate argument that it shouldn’t.
It would be fitting, and awfully Illinois, to have No. 2 devour No. 1. For my own sanity, and for the nearly 40 freaking years now I have been dedicating a dangerously high percentage of my emotional well-being to this stupid team, I am going to embrace my inner Mark Meadows and just pretend none of this is happening, and all that exists on my personal plane of reality is what I want to exist on my personal plane of reality. So, let’s talk some Illinois basketball.
With the season (probably?) beginning the day before Thanksgiving, it’s time for a preseason installment of our Illinois Men’s Basketball Power Rankings. These are the men who will be at the center of what promises to be the most fascinating, thrilling and eventful seasons in Illinois basketball history. If it happens.
17. Edgar Padilla, Jr, guard, freshman (walk-on)
He’s the son of that UMass point guard who led the Minutemen to the Final Four in 1996, if any of you are possibly old enough to remember that. (His dad is only five months older than me, which would be disturbing if Frank Williams weren’t five years younger.) His dad is best buds with Orlando Antigua, which would explain why he chose the Illini as his team to walk on for. The one thing the Illini aren’t short on this year are guards, so as far as the walk-ons go, he’s the one least likely to get any actual playing time. Particularly when one of those walk-ons is the coach’s kid.
16. Connor Serven, forward, freshman (walk-on)
A once-promising high school freshman who was racked with injuries his entire high school career and got healthy just in time for COVID-19 to shut down all AAU leagues, he signed as a scrawny preferred walk-on. In an ordinary year, he’d redshirt, but this is a free year, so nobody has to redshirt. He’ll still be a freshman when I do this preseason ranking next year, which I suspect will be the next time you see his name.
15. Zach Griffith, forward, senior (walk-on)
Quick, how many games has Griffith played in his Illini career? The answer is 13. 13! That’s more than you would have thought, right? Sure, his career high in minutes is seven, against Lindenwood last year, though he did sneak in against Michigan State and Purdue in January, which was of course 30 years ago. This is your annual, and likely last, reminder that he went to high school in Fisher and thus will be a Fisher Bunny, forever and forever.
14. Tyler Underwood, guard, senior (walk-on)
Hey, look who’s back! Yep, Tyler Underwood is going to be here forever, and it’s going to be even more creepy this year seeing Mini-Underwood running around the court now that his dad has lost all that weight. Underwood actually had a couple of nice passes in his probably-too-many minutes last year — he played in 15 games! That was more than Tevian Jones! — but lord help him if he ever has to guard anyone. Underwood already has a Master’s degree, and remember, he can come back and play next year if he wants to, and you know he wants to. Tyler Underwood will outlive us all.
13. Brandon Lieb, center, freshman
He’s a seven-foot-tall beanpole who can shoot, and Underwood (the dad) thinks he’ll be a great stretch five someday. Right now, though, I’m pretty sure Underwood (the son) would break his spine if Lieb tried to draw a charge. Imagine Nick Smith if he went on the Christian Bale Machinist diet. He’s reedy, is what I’m saying. I might show up a few times this year to grab a couple fouls at the end of a half, but this is another of those non-redshirt redshirt seasons. Someday he may be strong enough to play. Right now you could fit three of him inside Kofi.
12. Benjamin Bosmans-Verdonk, forward, freshman
Do you remember him playing 58 minutes last year? I sure don’t! He had a stress fracture, and then a foot injury, and now he’s reportedly out until December with an injury to his other foot. We’ve been hearing for a year now how athletic he is and how much potential he has, but even the coaches seem to have only seen that on video. It’s going to be wild writing this preview next year and still putting “freshman” next to his name, for the third freaking time.
11. Coleman Hawkins, forward, freshman
The other recruit this year — and it’s worth noting, with the recruiting issues that have popped up this year, that he’d be a lot more impressive recruit standing next to Luke Goode rather than Andre Curbelo and Adam Miller — is another of those stretch fours that everybody wants and Underwood, in particular, is always lusting after. He’ll be a complimentary piece even when he’s a senior, which means you shouldn’t expect much as a freshman. But Underwood says he’s one of the smartest guys on the roster, which means I’m willing to put him on layaway: Probably best to expect nothing this year and then enjoy opening the present of what he’ll become by, say, 2023. (If we are all not dead by then.)
10. Jermaine Hamlin, center, sophomore
Every report I hear about Hamlin always includes the word “project,” which sounds great until you remember that there many dudes on this team who are younger than he is, playing huge roles, which make you wonder when exactly this project will start veering toward completion. Every time he checks into a game, you’re sure to have the exact thought you had every time he checked into a game last year: Oh shit Kofi must be in foul trouble.
9. Jacob Grandison, forward, junior
The Blue Ribbon Basketball Yearbook, the massive all-encompassing guide I always say I’m going to read cover-to-cover and end up just skimming through the day before the season starts, has Grandison as a starter. I’m gonna go ahead and doubt that, but the opportunity is going to be there, now that Alan Griffin has transferred. Someone’s got to be that swingman, and while I bet Austin Hutcherson is ahead of him on the depth chart, if Grandison can shoot, like Underwood clearly believes he will, there will be many, many opportunities. Basically, you want him or Hutcherson to take that three spot so you don’t have to start Giorgi B.… though this will surely end up Adam Miller’s spot at some point anyway. The biggest problem Illinois had last year was that it couldn’t shoot threes. Grandison will have plenty of open shots. If he hits them, there are plenty of minutes to be had.
8. Austin Hutcherson, forward, junior
Underwood says he is “our best athlete,” and man, if that’s true, it’s absolutely bonkers that he was playing for a Division III school. Like Grandison, what Illinois really needs him to do is shoot. But if he can do more than that, it’ll be him who’s starting, and Miller will have to fight his way in. But color me skeptical on all these transfers: I’ve seen too many “this transfer is exactly what we need!” guys vanish when on the big stage to be too much of a believer. But the way the coaches have talked about Hutcherson makes you want to believe.
7. Andre Curbelo, guard, freshman
Curbelo may have been the only person in Champaign who didn’t immediately benefit from Ayo Dosunmu returning. He’s a “pure” point guard, which sounds wonderful though a lot of the time that means “he can’t shoot.” But everyone raves about his court vision and passing abilities, but asking him to be a crunch-time player seems like asking too much from a freshman point guard without much of a shot. I have a feeling he’ll be my favortite player in 2024, though.
6. Giorgi Bezhanishvili, forward, junior
If you were wondering, “how bad of a year can Giorgi B. have and not have everyone still be in love with him?” know that 2019-20… apparently wasn’t bad enough. It was bad, though. Not only did he never figure out how to play with Kofi — though I’d say there’s still some potential with that high-low game — but so many other parts of what Giorgi does collapsed. There were stretches where he’d miss, like, six layups in a row. There’s no reason to believe he’s suddenly going to start shooting well, but if he can remember who he was two years ago, he could be the perfect guy to spell Kofi and keep the offense flowing. Let’s not forget, too, that Ayo’s game-winning shot against Michigan came after a terrific defensive play by Giorgi. You should know that I will believe in him forever and that if you do not believe in him, you and I will have to fight.
5. Adam Miller, guard, freshman
Illinois definitely would have been counting on Miller more than they should if Dosunmu had not come back, but remember, they’re old high school teammates: If anything, you’ll see Dosunmu and Miller on the court more together than not. (Which begs the question of how Curbelo fits in.) He has a smooth lefty shot that, frankly, is what this team needs more than anything. If he’s able to knock down threes, he could be a Luther Head-type presence on this team. And if Trent Frazier struggles like he did last year… don’t overlook the possibility of Miller taking his spot in the lineup.
4. Da’Monte Williams, guard, senior
Williams still, now in his senior year, feels like a guy who is this close to putting it all together. He spent the first half of last year physically unable to make a shot, and then down the stretch, he became one of the most reliable clutch 3-point shooters on the team. He has the hard parts down: He’s always in the right place, he makes good decisions, and he’s just a magnificent defender in every possible way. He just needs to be a more aggressive and more fluent scorer. In other words: He’s the exact opposite of his dad. But if he can even start to approach what Frank did with on offense — and occasionally you see glimpses of it — during his senior year, this could become something even bigger than it already is. Watch out for D’Amonte this year. Bold prediction: He triples his scoring rate but doesn’t lose a step of that defense. And he’s going to have a moment in a big game that ensures a spot in Illinois history. Maybe even a tournament game.
3. Trent Frazier, guard, senior
I’ll never forget what Frazier did his freshman year, and neither should you. Just a total gamer in every way, with a little bit of, yeah, Dee in him: He looked like an Illini legend in the making. But it really hasn’t quite been right since Ayo got here, right? By the end of last season, his shot had gone into Mackey Sasser Land; it’s never a good sign when the bench goes nuts when the guy who is supposed to be your top 3-poiont shooter finally gets one freaking jumper to drop. The good news is that he obviously can shoot the three, and he’s going to have many, many opportunities to do so. If he can be the 40-percent 3-point shooter we all thought he’d be his entire time in Champaign-Urbana, this is a Final Four team. And if he’s not… hey, look, Adam Miller’s here now.
2. Kofi Cockburn, center, sophomore
I got to attend one Illini game in person last year, and it was that game: The Michigan State game in which Ayo got hurt on the last drive and it looked like both the Illini season, and maybe his collegiate career, was over. It, thank god, did not turn out that way, but I would like to note what happened right before Michigan State made the shot that gave them the lead. Illinois had the ball down one, and Michigan State fouled Kofi. A 7-foot 300-pound monster, a guy who hadn’t even been playing basketball that long, a guy who was supposed to be a “project”… calmly and efficiently drained two free throws like it was nothing. Like he’d been doing it all his life.
The best thing about Kofi in the 2019-20 season was not that he was great, though he was, and not that he transformed not just the team but, apparently, Brad Underwood’s whole style of basketball, though he did that too. It’s that he just kept getting better. Every game seemed to add a new wrinkle, a little trick he picked up in practice and had somehow mastered by gametime. By the end of the year, he was draining jumpers, switching smartly on defense and still jamming dunks down poor fools’ throats. There’s still work to do, which is why he’s back in the first place. But if he improves as rapidly, and repeatedly, as he did last year… well, Illinois has a player unlike any other in all of college basketball. I can’t wait to see what he does next.
1. Ayo Dosunmu, guard, junior
It’s worth remembering that “clutch” is not, in fact, immutable. There will be moments when Ayo has the ball late and doesn’t make the last-second shot, and it won’t make him any less incredible and less vital to what Illinois basketball has been trying to build, what it’s been trying to return to. He’s the heart and soul of everything, and there is no one I trust more than him. The shot needs to improve, sure, but what’s wonderful about Ayo is that he reminds you of that feeling you had 15 years ago, that sensation that “we’re better than you are, and we are more fun than you are, and we are cooler than you are.” Illinois hasn’t had that in so long. It is through Ayo that it all can return. I think he would have led Illinois to the Sweet 16 last year, at least. I think he can lead Illinois even farther this year. If he does, he’s the next Dee. Maybe he’s even more. Maybe he’s Dee and Deron mixed together, Brundle-Fly style. I cannot wait to see what happens.
If, you know… it actually happens.
Illinois faces off against North Carolina A&T this Wednesday, November 25th at 1 p.m. at State Farm Center. Watch it on Big Ten Network.
Will Leitch is a contributing editor at New York Magazine, national columnist for MLB.com, a senior writer for Medium and the founder of Deadspin. He grew up in Mattoon and graduated from the University of Illinois in 1997. Subscribe to his free weekly newsletter while you’re here.