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This season will bring a new chapter in Illini basketball. Not just because of the coaching change but a young talented group of freshman along with grad transfer Mark Alstork make up half of this seasons team. Many new faces with a new system have brought excitement and hope back to the State Farm Center. Before the season officially begins tomorrow I wanted to give you my predictions and some things to keep an eye on during the season.
When youth is a huge part of your team, you have to expect some inconsistent play. This is a talented team but as we saw last Friday in Illinois 80-67 loss to Eastern Illinois, when it’s upperclassmen aren’t playing well this team could lose to anyone. This team can also beat many good teams this season as well, winning a scrimmage against a good Vanderbilt team the week before is proof of this. Don’t assume this team will struggle because of what we saw in Charleston last week. The coaching staff and players will use that as a reference point as to what can happen when they aren’t playing together and begin trying to play hero ball. This will be a season of many ups and downs but also a lot of excitement and some big wins. Here are my bold predictions for this season.
Mark Smith BIG Freshman of the year
Yes, you read that right. Mark Smith is special, no other way around it. Against Eastern Illinois you saw flashes of what Mark is and will be during his time in Champaign. When the rest of the team was struggling, Mark at times took over and showed no fear. Brad Underwood said in his thirty years of coaching, he had never seen a player develop as much from the time he stepped on campus untill practice started. That’s high praise from a man whose seen many great players. I have mentioned several times on my periscopes Mark will be the best freshman in the Big Ten. I see Mark averaging close to 14 PPG and grabbing 4 boards with 3 assists. This might be high praise and expecting a lot. Mark is the real deal
Te’jon Lucas will lead the BIG in Assists
I told you these would be bold right? Te’jon was a straight wizard with the ball last season. He averaged over three assists a game last season. With a full freshman season, that could have easily been over four per game. Former Coach John Groce was reluctant to use him much untill Big Ten season began. He had a season high eight assists against Michigan last season, and finished the season with nineteen assists in his final three games during the NIT. Te’jon has more weapons this seasons and with an added full year of health, you will see a confident floor general. I really want to see him be just as confident in his shot from deep and I think that will come. He shot around 30% from deep but can be reluctant at times to pull the trigger. I can see TJL averaging around 6 assists a game once this team hits its stride, his court vision and passing ability is the best on the team. This will be the main reason he starts at the Point. I expect a big season from Te’jon Lucas
Illini will have highest scoring freshman backcourt in country
It’s no secret what Illinois has in Mark Smith. Illinois has two other very talented freshman that will make a name for themselves. Trent Frazier will be one of the first players off the bench and can provide instant offense with his play Making ability. He led the team against Vanderbilt and can be dynamic from deep. He didn’t shoot well against EIU but made some great reads and set up teammates for easy scores. Brad underwood even mentioned he expects trent to have some big games this season. Damonte Williams has a quiet, calm and confident demeanor. Don’t let that fool you though, he’s a beast. Could easily be the teams best defender and one of the best athletes on the team behind Gregory Eboigbodin. His long arms and great instincts will make him a nightmare to score on, coaches already love how well he bothers opponents passing lanes and angles. His offense will develop a little slower than his defense right now but he has a smooth stroke. It’s all about him being too unselfish, he has twenty foot range from deep and can attack the glass and finish with contact. Damonte will be in the top three or four on the team in rebounding and will most likely lead the team in steals. With this dynamic freshman backcourt, I expect around 30 points per game from Mark Smith, Trent Frazier and Damonte Williams. Did I mention the future is bright?
Illinois will make the NCAA Tournament
This team will score between 80-90 points a game. The issue during the first part of the season will be having to win high scoring affairs. You can already tell defensively they are struggling to adjust. I expect high scoring shootouts untill Big Ten play begins. I am not saying Southern and UT-Martin will score 90 this weekend but Illinois has UNLV, Wake and Mizzou before Big Ten Play. I expect high scoring exciting games and this young team learns and develops into the team Brad Underwood demands. Illinois didn’t get what they needed from Michael Finke and Mark Alstork last week. That won’t be accepted or tolerated. Alstork is too gifted offensively to press and struggle for long, that funk ends this weekend. I expect alstork to lead the team with around 15 PPG. Finke will be a leader on and off the court this season and his versatility will help him thrive. He had some big rebounding games last season and I expect that trend to continue to climb this year. Leron black could easily lead the league in rebounding when he’s in Beast Mode, Underwood will corral some of Blacks wildness that has kept him in foul trouble most of his career. Leron black can go for a double-double any night. Keeping him on the floor will be crucial to making the tourney. My X-Factor for this season in easily Kipper Nichols. He can do it all and will be asked too. He had a great first half against EIU but can’t disappear like he did in the second half. He’s worked on his shooting from deep and ball handling. He has played well in the scrimmages/games. Kipper is the only guy on the team who can lead the team in scoring/rebounding/assists in a game and will be asked to guard the other teams best player. Again, my X-factor. Illinois will be asking freshman big men Matic Vesel and Gregory Eboigbodin to spell Finke and Black at times. They will be asked to rebound/run the floor and protect the rim. Gregory is the best athlete on the team and some nights could lead in rebounding/blocked shots. Once Vesel gains confidence expect him to give Illinois a threat from deep at the 5 spot. He can shoot it very well and handles the ball well for 6’10. This team is young and will be inconsistent, be patient. They will hit their stride and with everything in life, perfection takes time. This will be a fun and exciting team that wins games. They will gang rebound and make A LOT of threes and shoot A LOT of free throws.