Ordinarily in this space, I’d do an Illini Power Rankings, and I’ll get back to that again for the season ends. For now, though, as the team sits through 10 days without a game thanks to Michigan State’s COVID-19 issues — and with Michigan’s two-week pause, this is a problem that will continue — we take stock of the team before its much-anticipated game against Iowa on Friday. Here are 10 pressing questions about this year’s Illinois men’s basketball team.
1. Is there something… missing?
There isn’t a college basketball analyst on the planet who doesn’t think Illinois doesn’t have national championship talent. We all know how talented this team is: That’s why were so excited about Ayo Dosunmu and Kofi Cockburn coming back in the first place. But it’s tough to make an argument for national championship contention when you’re losing back-to-back games at home to Maryland and Ohio State. The second half against Northwestern was a Final Four team; the first half was a late-era Bruce Weber special. It is beginning to appear that Illinois is missing the guy who shakes them out of their stupor when they start to jam up. Last year that person was Andres Feliz. This year… that person is not here. And it shows. Which brings us to…
2. Are we sure Ayo Dosunmu is a first-round pick?
I love the guy as much as anyone, and he’s a transformational figure for the Illinois program. He’s one of my favorite Illini ever. But I am increasingly concerned he is not in fact an NBA player. The shot that was supposed to come around just hasn’t, he disappears for long stretches and he hasn’t lifted this team out of its doldrums when you’d expect a leader like him to do so, at least this year. He’s still an All-Big Ten player, and probably an All-American. I am not complaining. But the massive “oh, he’s a lottery guy now” jump hasn’t happened, and it’s fair to wonder if it ever will. He’s No. 22 in the most recent NBA Draft.net mock draft, but Sports Illustrated doesn’t have him in the first round at all. Is the leap coming?
3. Can Kofi Cockburn start hitting his free throws?
You see Kofi show up in some second-round mocks, and if it were 1998, he’d be a lottery pick. But he just doesn’t really have an NBA-type of game, and it makes me wonder if maybe he could come back next year, and maybe even the year after. He is clearly better this year, just an absolute monster when he wants to be, and after some early-season missteps, the defense has improved in recent weeks. But remember last year, in the Michigan State game where everyone thought we lost Ayo, when Kofi drained two free throws late like it was nothing? That confidence at the line is shot now, which is bad because at this point most teams are just hacking him like crazy. Kofi has shown an impressive ability to keep finding little ways to improve. Becoming even a 67 percent free-throw shooter would be a huge next step. But he’s still not an NBA rotation player until he starts draining threes, Meyers Leonard-style.
4. What can you expect from the freshmen?
Andre Curbelo and Adam Miller have basically taken turns being The Freshman Broadcasters Are Always Telling You You Have To Watch Out For. Miller was the star early, which makes sense: It is much easier to hit 3-pointers when Chicago State players are not guarding you. But then Curbelo had a stretch where the offense didn’t really work without him in the game. He seems to have hit the freshman wall a little bit, and those crazy fun passes are starting to be more crazy than fun; meanwhile, Miller has his shooting touch back and is starting to look somewhat Trent Frazier-like on defense. It’d be nice to get them both going at the same time, particularly as the third freshman, Coleman Hawkins, makes his presence felt more and more. We have not seen the Miller-Curbelo combo clicking simultaneously. There’s a lot of upside in that possibility moving forward.
5. Is Da’Monte Williams OK?
Da’Monte Williams keeps being called one of the best 3-point shooters in the nation by broadcasters only barely paying attention, but it’s more accurate to say he’s one of the smartest 3-point shooters in the nation: He only shoots when he is wide, wide open. But everything has started to slow down of late, ever since his ankle injury a couple of weeks ago. His state line against Penn State looked like one from last year, when he barely shot and didn’t score, and you’re seeing him a step slow on defense, which is obviously incredibly rare. I still feel like there’s a Da’Monte Secures His Illinois Legend game or shot coming up, but he needs to get healthy. This week off could do him wonders.
6. Is Jacob Grandison the eighth guy?
Depth was supposed to be one of Illinois’ big strengths, but it hasn’t turned out that way. Brad Underwood is only running out a seven-man rotation, and you can’t help but wonder if one of the reasons there are periods where the team sags is simply because they’re tired. Grandison has started to emerge of late, particularly when Illinois is facing a zone; it’s a good fit for him, particularly when he can hit his threes when he’s open. Hawkins helps out defensively, but Grandison stepping up would be massive for a team that still feels like it is short a wing. (Alan Griffin is averaging 15.7 points a game for Syracuse, by the way.)
7. Can they avoid any more shit losses?
The Missouri loss was bad; the Ohio State loss was worse; the Rutgers, worse than that; the Maryland game still has me punching mirrors. The schedule tightens moving forward, which is fine, in a general sense: With Iowa/Michigan/Wisconsin on the schedule so much, there are many opportunities for big, meaty, seed-boosting wins. But that only matters if they win the games they are supposed to… unlike the four losses above. Depending on potential cancellations, they’ve got games against Nebraska (maybe two games against Nebraska), Northwestern and Indiana left. They need not to drop any of those. Win those, and you can drop one of the big ones, even a Minnesota on the road, and still be just fine.
8. Are we investing too much in this team?
Illinois is 10-5, ranked and clearly on its way to the NCAA Tournament. They are inconsistent, but they also have the sort of talent that, if they get hot, can beat just about anyone in college basketball. This is something that should make us all happy: It has, after all, been since 2013 since anyone’s filled out our name in an office bracket. (2013! That’s nuts!) But still: This team feels so disappointing. I think we’d all be enjoying this a lot more if we hadn’t all convinced ourselves this was a slam-dunk Final Four team preseason. They might still be that team. But it’ll be a surprise if it happens. Which is good! Surprises are fun. Lower your expectations: It’s safer that way.
9. Should we be worried about the Underwood plan?
This season is supposed to be the grand emergence after two years of rebuilding (and missing the tournament) and last year’s should-have-been COVID season. Underwood was gifted Ayo coming back, with a team that many felt was a stealth Final Four contender last year; this was meant to be the ideal mix of veterans and exciting freshmen, talent and experience and an innovative coach all combining for the breakthrough year. And again: This still could happen. But what if this is the peak? After all, this was a disappointment of a recruiting year, no offense Luke Goode, and (presumably) Ayo and (maybe) Kofi are gone next year. That team will still be good, assuming Curbelo and Miller and everyone sticks around (and who knows, maybe Da’Monte and Frazier come back; they can, after all), but the whole point of the Underwood thing is to bring Illinois back to the regular Top 16 team fans all believe it should be. Well, this year, the All-American point guard came back, and Kofi is better… and they’re still not in the Top 16. If this year ends up being a disappointment… then what?
10. Are we sure this season is even going to finish? Are we sure it should?
This may be the biggest question of all. It sure would be something if Illinois figured it out and became the team we all expected them to be… right before they shut the season down. That would ultimately be the most Illini thing of all.
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.