For the first time since Kendall Gill was four years old, the Illini basketball team has won three Big Ten games in a row. (Well, at least it feels like it has been this long, though it has only been a few years since this they won more in a row.) The second of those three games, a face-melting upset win over then-No. 9 Michigan State, was the biggest Illinois win in a half-decade, and it happened to feature your humble author in attendance. Thus, there is no better time for our second-edition of the 2018-19 Illinois Men’s Basketball Power Rankings. The final edition will come before the Big Ten tournament, which will surely mark the continuation of a 10-game winning streak because everything is fixed now and thus beautiful forever.
So, come with us, and remember: We currently live in a world where Bill Self’s 14-year Big 12 championship run is about to be ended by... Bruce Weber. If it makes you feel any better, Akron is in fourth place in the MAC East.
16. Anthony Higgs
He redshirted, didn’t you hear? He’s 6-foot-8, but his foot never healed, and you have to wonder whether, with Kofi Cockburn and Antwan January coming, Giorgi B emerging and Samba Kane growing, just how much time there’s going to be for him in the future. He may have already missed his window.
15-13. Zach Griffith, Drew Cayce and Samson Oladimeji
All the walk-ons get grouped together because this is serious business now: No time for tomfoolery. Oladimeji occasionally gets a few stray seconds when Underwood doesn’t want any of his forwards to pick up a third foul at the end of the first half, but all the minutes for this trio have been hoovered up. None of them are seniors, by the way, so we get to type these names again next year. Even the walk-ons are underclassmen on this team.
12. Tyler Underwood
Coach’s Kid — seriously, it’s legit disturbing how much he looks like his dad running around the court, particularly because it seems impossible Pa Underwood was ever 22 years old himself — got into four of the first six Big Ten games, all losses. This did him no favors, but it definitely didn’t do his father anyway: Seeing Junior out there Try Harding while Tevian Jones and Samba Kane picked their noses on the bench and the team got rocked every night was, as the kids say, Not A Good Luck. Tyler doesn’t seem like a bad player all told, and he’s had a couple of moments when he has settled the team down during a particularly chaotic defensive stretch. The stat sheet says he sneaked in for two minutes against Rutgers, but I must have blinked, he must have done absolutely nothing, or both, because I have no recollection of that happening whatsoever. Nice kid, but the more he plays, the farther away we are from the plan.
11. Samba Kane
The UNLV game, when he was playing against a gaggle of other athletic freshmen who have no idea what to do with themselves on a basketball court either, was about as happy as it’s going to get for Samba this year. He scored eight of his 27 total points in that game, and he was the only one who played any defense in the Iowa blowout (he had three blocks in eight minutes), but it’s telling that since the Maryland win started this happy little run, he has played a total of one minute. Put all those Nnanna Egwu dreams away; they were probably a little racist anyway.
10. Alan Griffin
The guy has the platonic ideal of a 3-pointer stroke. There isn’t a player on the team who makes me think more that every shot is obviously going in than him. His shot seems to generate from his feet and work its way all the way up to the basket.
So far, though, he’s only hitting 34 percent from 3-point land, and he doesn’t do much of anything else: His assist/TO ratio is a super scary 6:23. At the beginning of the year, I said the hope for him is that he grows up to become Aaron Jordan. We’ll get to Aaron in a bit, but while the stroke will surely get there, everything else has a long way to go.
9. Kipper Nichols
Even after the resurgence against Nebraska, he remains the biggest disappointment on the roster by a wide margin. He’s useful against teams like Michigan State because he’s thick enough not to get knocked around, but it’s tough to ever trust him with the ball in his hands, and you never know when he’s going to have one of his sleepwalking games. Underwood, whom Kipper is clearly driving insane, hasn’t given up on him yet, so we shouldn’t either, but I’ve gotta say: Few of the things that are fun and exciting about this team moving forward involve Kipper Nichols. I’m tired of waiting around, and you should be too.
8. Adonis de la Rosa
Now that the knee is feeling better — and there was a scary moment in the Rutgers game when you thought he might have injured it again — his utility is obvious. He’s a massive dude on a team that has no other massive dudes, and simply by being that massive, he opens lanes and space for anyone standing within a few feet of him. He can even take advantage of that with the occasional nifty passing eye, like his sweet dish to Nichols in the first half of the MSU game:
He’s still lumbering and awkward and a little out of shape, but this is still turning out to be a better fifth-year senior transfer than Ahmad Starks or Mark Alstork were.
7. Da’Monte Williams
Watching his dad for too long (and I’m not sure I missed a single game he played for the Illini) has given me the illusion that he’s a much better offensive player than he is. I expect him to slash to the hoop at any moment, and I always think every shot is going in. I need to get over that, because he does so many other things well, particularly defensively: He’s always in the right spot, and he’s reliable, and he’s trustworthy. He’s just not explosive or particularly exciting. In other words: The experience of watching him is the exact opposite of the experience of watching his dad. It’s disorienting.
6. Tevian Jones
After the Maryland game, we all thought we had found our Luther Head: The wing guy who can jump and shoot and do all sorts of crazy shit, the athletic three who our guards will constantly be finding in transition either to drain a three or throw it down in some fool’s face. We’ve been reminded he’s still a freshman – a freshman who was suspended a month and a half, for that matter – ever since, but we keep seeing flashes, and his teammates obviously love playing with him. It’s not fair to keep making the Luther Head comparison, but seriously, if he somehow turns into Luther Head, this team has a higher ceiling in the next three years than any of us would dare say out loud. Remember, too: Luther never really figured it out until his junior year. Tevian is already much farther along than he was at this point. Get excited.
5. Andres Feliz
I’m underrating him here. Sometimes his aggression gets the best of him; a larger percentage of his drives have a doomed grandeur to them than you’d like. (You admire the effort, but unless he grows six inches or has an invisible fullback in front of him, it’s not happening.) But he’s a freaking warrior, a guy who isn’t much of an athletic wonder but combines experience with constant forward movement to give the team something it doesn’t have otherwise. He maybe acts a little bit more like a star than he is, but he’s invaluable: He has become the guy I want on the free throw line at the end of games more than anyone else. Also, when there was a scuffle at the end of the Rutgers game, you knew he’d be in the middle of it. I love him a little more every game.
4. Aaron Jordan
The one thing I’ve been waiting for Jordan to become his entire career — the knock-down, no-doubt 3-point shooter — is the one thing he’s never been able to quite be, that gorgeous three late against Rutgers aside. But he’s essentially everywhere else, including a tenacity for rebounds that the team is desperate for. And that block he had against Michigan State may have won them the game: I have watched Michigan State dudes nail that jumper for decades, and he knocked it away at the best possible time. Also, don’t look now, but the shot is slowly starting to creep back: He’s up to 39 percent on the year, which is not last year’s absurd 46.3 percent but will certainly play. Proof that having seniors around is rather handy.
3. Trent Frazier
The most encouraging thing about these last few games, other than the wins, is that Trent and Ayo are starting to play together the way we all imagined they would. There hasn’t been as much of their alternating great games; they’re now just both thriving, recognizing what each other’s strengths are, how they work together best. They still don’t have it down perfect – I’d have rather seen Frazier taking that shot at the end of regulation against Rutgers than Ayo trying to take on four guys – but it’s starting to click. And he still can make those wonderful circus shots: His three in overtime against Rutgers was the first time I was certain we were going to win that game. I want very badly to watch him and Ayo play another year together. Which brings us to...
2. Ayo Dosunmu
The only problem I have with Ayo is that I can’t figure out if the “N” in his last name is silent or if everyone else is just more subtly about fitting in the pronunciation than I am. Yeah: We sure are seeing it from this dude now, aren’t we? We knew he could drive the basket and had a Kyrie-esque ability to score at the hoop; he was doing that even when he was struggling with everything else earlier this year. But now we’re seeing his vision – that pass to Jordan on the 3-pointer against Rutgers was like something from Dee and Deron – and, even more so, we’re seeing his eagerness to take the big shot. I don’t know if State Farm Center has made a louder sound than it did after his second 3-pointer against Michigan State since Tyler Griffey’s lay-in, but I highly doubt it. Ayo is the real deal in every way: Don’t you feel pretty stupid for ever dreaming on Mark Smith right now? This is an NBA player. Let’s just hope he’s not one yet.
1. Giorgi Bezhanishvili
Think about all the recruits we Illini fans have dreamed on over the last 30 years. Dee Brown. Jereme Richmond. Brian Cook. Meyers Leonard. Brandon Paul. Frank Williams. Hell, Kiwane Garris was so good his freshman year that he never quite recovered. But it’s Georgi B, freaking Georgia B, who sets the all-time single-game freshman scoring record, with a game in which he looked as unstoppable as Deon Thomas or James Augustine ever looked. How the hell did this happen? How did we stumble across a top-tier post player out of nowhere? Giorgi B was recruiting by no one... shit, he was known by no one. And now he’s a four-year starter who is going to be hated by everyone in this conference for decades to come, a pain in the ass they won’t be able to believe hasn’t graduated yet. He’s only going to get better: His form is good enough that eventually those shots are going to fall, and the footwork on defense is already there. He’s also so incredibly likable and goofy that I think I want him to be my best friend. He fell from the sky, folks. And he’s ours.
Photos by Michael Glasgow / Illinois Athletics
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. Subscribe to his weekly newsletter right here.