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Big Ten men’s basketball team previews: Illinois Fighting Illini

Can the Illinois talented recruiting class make up for the loss of Kofi Cockburn?

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament First Round Pittsburgh Practice Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Team: Illinois Fighting Illini
Coach: Brad Underwood (sixth season)
2021-22 record: 23-10 (15-5)
Season finish: NCAA tournament Sweet 16

Players returning: Coleman Hawkins, R.J. Melendez, Luke Goode, Brandon Lieb

Players departed: Kofi Cockburn, Austin Hutcherson, Andre Curbelo (St. Johns), Omar Payne (Jacksonville), Jacob Grandison (Duke), Brandin Podziemski (Santa Clara), Benjamin Bosmans-Verdonk (South Carolina)

Key additions: Terrance Shannon Jr. (Texas Tech), Matthew Mayer (Baylor), Skyy Clark, Ty Rodgers, Sencire Harris, Jayden Epps, Zacharie Perrin, Dain Dainja (Baylor)


The Fighting Illini are in a similar place as Ohio State; there is a lot of talent, but they will have to rely on freshmen to step up into roles early. They have an elite recruiting class that ranked seventh overall and third in the Big Ten, according to 247 sports.

As we all know, the transfer portal giveth and the transfer portal taketh away. Illinois is one of the prime examples of that this season. They brought in huge contributors like Terrance Shannon Jr. from Texas Tech and Matthew Mayer from Baylor, but also lost Andre Curbelo to St. Johns and Jacob Grandison to Duke. Also, the Illini lost Omar Payne and Benjamin Bosmans-Verdonk to the transfer portal and they were guys that were expected to take on larger roles.

As mentioned, there is undeniably a lot of talent on this Illinois team. They will likely start a lineup of Clark-Melendez-Shannon-Mayer-Hawkins are some sort of variation of that lineup to start the season. Only one of those guys started for Illinois last season so there will be some growing pains early. As long as they can click and figure out their chemistry early on in November, they have the talent, depth, and coaching to be competitive.

X Factor

Skyy Clark. I almost went with R.J. Melendez here and Coleman Hawkins could very well be an All-Big Ten type player this season, but Clark is an incoming point guard for the Illini from Montverde Academy that will need to step into a large role for Brad Underwood and company.

Clark originally committed to Kentucky but is now heading to Champagne.

Here is the scouting report on Clark according to 247 sports Eric Bossi:

Any updated scouting report of Clark has to start off by mentioning that he’s still in the process of getting to 100%. He tore his ACL last spring and managed to return to the floor by January. The speed with which he was able to recover and get himself back into playing shape is notable in that nobody is capable of doing that without an impressive work ethic and commitment to hard work.

While Clark was able to make a quick return to the floor, he was understandably rusty. During his return, Clark lacked some of the explosion at the rim and ability to shake defenders off the bounce that he had prior to getting hurt. Hopefully, that comes back with time. Clark has always had good strength and he came back from injury stronger than ever and that strength allows him to play through and off of contact and should serve him well when he makes the transition to college.

At this point his development, it is probably fair to classify Clark as more of a scoring point guard than traditional playmaker. When he’s at his best he is attacking downhill, making use of his dangerous jump shot and deep range and playing in an aggressive manner on the offensive end. He is certainly a capable playmaker for others but when that becomes the sole focus of his game, he can be a bit too passive in looking for his own offense. The rocks of his game are his tight ball handling and creativity offensively.

If Clark can come in healthy and be the immediate contributor that Illinois expects him to be, they should be in a very good position to make some noise in the Big Ten. Especially with all the talent that has left the conference and the question marks that surround most teams.


Illinois has a good mix of valuable players returning and transfers and freshmen that they brought in. Shannon Jr. and Mayer are proven commodities that should be able to step into a big role immediately and Hawkins, Melendez, and Goode all showed that they can be valuable contributors with high ceilings last season.

The hype around R.J. Melendez is very real and many look at him as the one guy that can make a huge jump this season for Illinois.

The main question will be their depth and the impact the freshman class will have, even outside of Clark. Ty Rogers, Jayden Epps, and Sencire Harris are all highly touted prospects that should be expected to be productive from day one and help take some pressure off of Melendez and Hawkins to be superstars.