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Big Ten men’s basketball preview: Illinois Fighting Illini

Can Illinois stay at the top of the crop this season?

Loyola Chicago v Illinois Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images

As we trek into our big ten basketball previews, we will touch on the Illinois Fighting Illini. We attempted to go in alphabetical order, but the ABCs are hard and started with Indiana over Illinois. So from here on out, we will go in alphabetical order and ignore the earlier snafu.

Without further ado and humiliation, let’s take a quick look at the Fighting Illini or as I like to call them, the Fighting Brad Underwoods.

Illinois Fighting Illini

Head coach: Brad Underwood (fifth season)
2020-21 record: 24-7 (16-4)
Season finish: NCAA Tournament Round of 32 loss to Loyola Chicago

What comes back: The Fighting Illini will lose one of the top players in the conference in Ayo Dosunmu, but will return another one of the top players in the conference in Kofi Cockburn, who tested the NBA Draft waters and the transfer portal, but decided to return to the Illini.

The other big name that comes back to Illinois is Andre Curbelo. The 6-foot-1 point guard really stole the stage last season at times as a freshman, and Illinois will look for him to make a gigantic leap in his second season. Fifth-year senior guard Trent Frazier is also back for his final season and senior Da’Monte Williams returns as one of the top shooters in the conference.

What was lost: As already mentioned mentioned, Illinois loses Dosunmu to the NBA, but they return almost everyone else. They did lose Giorgi Bezhanishvil to graduation and Adam Miller who transferred to LSU. The pair combined for 13.4 points per game last season.

Dosunmu averaged 20 points, 6.3 rebounds, and 5.3 assists per game last season, which is production that you cannot expect someone to come in and replace; that is a void in production that multiple guys will likely need to step up and try to fill.

All of these guys were productive for Illinois, but being able to return what they do, and bringing in the players they are, Illinois will not have nearly as much of a falloff as some originally thought.

Against Ohio State in the Chris Holtmann era: Illinois against Ohio State has been a fun matchup over the past four seasons, as both teams have been in the upper echelon of Big Ten and have had some great talent. The Fighting Illini are 3-and-4 over the past four seasons against the Buckeyes.

The last time that the Buckeyes and Fighting Illini met was last season in the conference championship game and , in terms of entertainment, that did not disappoint, although the outcome certainly did. The game went to overtime and Illinois won 91-88 in one of the better games of the season.

Holtmann and Underwood both were hired in the same season, so they tend to be compared to each other often. Suffice to say, they have both done an amazing job at their respective schools thus far.

Season prediction: For Illinois, they are fortunate to return as much talent as they do. Bringing back Cockburn and Frazier was unexpected for most, but it will help Illinois’ journey to stay at the top of the big ten and the top of the country.

Similar to Ohio State and some other teams in the conference, the Illini’s season came to an abrupt and disappointing end, being a No. 1 seed and losing in the Round of 32 of the NCAA Tournament. Even on paper, the Illini matchup against Loyola Chicago was a bad one, but still a disappointing loss nonetheless for a team that had NCAA title hopes.

They will need to use that as fuel heading into this season with the guys that are returning. There is really no reason that this team should not be a top-15 team in the country and a top-five team in the conference as long as they play within themselves.

Next: Iowa Hawkeyes