Illinois Fighting Illini basketball is back this Friday and I, like many fans, can’t wait to see how Brad Underwood’s new group looks come game time.

Brad Underwood’s first season in charge didn’t exactly get off to a “Flying Illini” start as his team went 14-18 overall and 4-14 in conference play. This came as a surprise to many Illini fans as Coach Underwood never had a losing record in any of his previous years as a Head Coach. Another issue that concerned many Illini fans this past off-season was the many departures that occured during the culmination of last year. Firstly, junior forward Leron Black and the Illini’s leading scorer last season, moved on from the program to pursue his professional basketball career. Next, former Illini freshman center Greg Eboigbodin, freshman forward Matic Vesel, junior forward Michael Finke, sophomore guard Te’Jon Lucas, and freshman guard Mark Smith all transfered out to find new opportunities. Finally, 5th year guard Mark Alstork also departed the program as he finished his years of eligibility.

That’s a lot of change to a first year Head Coach’s team. Despite only having three returning players that played major minutes last season, Brad Underwood’s group might have an optimistic outlook of this upcoming season.

The Illinois coaching staff really pulled off an impressive first class ranking twenty-fifth nationally by 247 Sports. The class was headlined by 5-star top 30 national & two time State Championship winner Ayo Dosunmu. The former Mac Irvin Fire and Morgan Park standout is a combo guard who has outstanding quickness and a special ability to get to the rim and score at will. He was also named to the Third Preseason All-B1G team. Another member of the 2018 class that stands out to me is Tevian Jones. He is probably one of the most athletically gifted players that the Illini have had since Joseph Bertrand. He is a special player who, because of his size at 6-6 and 220 lbs and his strong shooting capability, can force favorable matchups for the Illini. He is probably the player I am most excited about in this class. Finally, the third player of this class that stands out to me is center Samba Kane. Samba is a very similar player to former Illini Greg Eboigbodin except I think Samba has a better ability to run the court and thus is a better fit for Brad Underwood’s roster. He is very raw on the offensive end but I think he will have a huge impact on defensive end this season. It is way to early to predict where his career will go, but my bold prediction is that he will challenge Nnanna Egwu for All-Time Career Blocked Shots at Illinios.

Who Will Be The Starting 5?

Well as we all know from last year, Coach Underwood doesn’t really care who starts the game for him, he just wants to have a balanced team. Therefore it”ll be extremely intruging to see if Coach Underwood elects to play more small-ball lineups as that would allow the Illini to be more dynamic on offense. Things could change, but this is my projected starting 5 for the Illini against Illinois Wesleyan.

Andres Feliz G (Jr.)

Andres Feliz commit to Illinois late in the recruiting process and I think he was an absolute steal for this year’s team. From a national perspective, Feliz was ranked as the #1 JUCO PG in the 2018 class. Feliz has the ability to not only be a effective ball-handler but he is more than capable of being a “go to scorer” in Brad Underwood’s offense.

Trent Frazier G (Soph.)

Well, if you don’t know who this guy is, you missed an absolutely special freshman season from the Florida native. Frazier averaged 12.5 PTS ,1.5 REB and 3.1 AST over the course of the year. Those stats don’t even tell the entire story as Frazier not only became a leader and fan favorite, but also became the face of the Illini program. It’ll be interesting to see if he is able to avoid the dreaded sophomore slump this season as he will be an integral part of his team’s success.

Ayo Dosunmu G (Fr.)

Yeah… just understand this when it comes to Ayo, he is an absolute stud, and has been the Illini best player in many practices.

Kipper Nichols F (Jr.)

Kipper Nichols, often referred to as the jokester on the team, is a player that has “untapped potential”, as Coach Underwood stated last year. Nichols had a solid season last year as he averaged 10 PTS, 4.2 REB, 0.7 AST per game. The most disappointing part of Nichols is he could have been the most talented player on the team, but he was probably the most inconsistent player for the Illini last year. For example, Nichols would be on fire during a game, and then would miss on a fast break lay-up soon after. Even on the defensive side of the ball, Nichols had his up and downs. Against the Michigan State Spartans, Nichols more than held his own against the likes of Jaren Jackson Jr. and Miles Bridges but in other games he would be a non-factor. That cannot happen this year.

Giorgi Bezhanishvilli F (Fr.)

All off-season, Coach Underwood raved about Giorgi, Underwood stated that he was very impressed by Giorgi’s basketball IQ and by extent his ability to pass the ball really well. He is also a very capable shooter whether that be back to the basket or facing up to the rim which would mean that he will be a key recipient on a good amount of the pick and pop plays we saw the Illini run last year. Finally, Giorgi is actually quite strong of a ball-handler so his ability can further help the Illini against full-court pressure situations.

Learn about Illinois Wesleyan

Illinois Wesleyan is an elite Division III program that has enjoyed success over the last couple years and thier history, reaching 6 Final Fours in total. IWU is coming off an impressive season where they went 19-8 and won a co-CCIW Championship title with one of last season’s opponents, Augustana (IL.). In fact IWU is projected to enjoy some more success as they are ranked in the Preseason Division III Top 25 coming in at 19th in the country.This team was also fantastic from behing the three point line shooting 268-712 (.376). As a team that is outstanding and is a factor that makes it extremely difficult to guard them around the court. In their front court, they have a strong starting pair in sophomore Miles Curry and RS sophomore Alex O’Neil. IWU is also a team that was very strong at beating the full-court press and this should help them have some success against Brad Underwood’s pressure defense however thr Illini’s quickness, size, and athleticism might make it an even tougher test for IWU. Obviously, this team is good, but maybe not as talented as most Division I programs based off just sheer athleticism and size.

Who will be the Starting 5?

Brady Rose G (Sr.)

Brady Rose is a really talented player that had the option to play Divison I and Divison II basketball but chose to stay closer to home. As the Head Coaches’ son, a lot is expected out of him and he certainly delivers on that. Last year Rose averaged 21 PTS and established himself as one of the best players in Divison III basketball. Rose is also an elite shooter and if you back off him he will hurt you. He shot 71-184 (.386) from three point range despite shooting a ridiculous .447 in conference play. He also has great quickness and an extra bounce in his step, which will make him even harder for the young Illini defenders to stop him from scoring at will.

Colin Bonnett G (Sr.)

Colin Bonnett came to IWU in the same class as Rose and has been another player who has played an important part in his program’s success. Colin Bonnett has that B1G mentality about being tough and scrappy on the floor. He is what some like to call a “glue guy”. He is also talented enough to shoot it well from behind the arc while also being able to take the ball to the rim and finish with ease.

Jason Gregoire G (Sr.)

Jason Gregoire is another guy who is a great shooter however he is a pure shooter. He isn’t someone who will light you up for 20 PTS in a given night, but he can and will hurt you from deep if left open.

Miles Curry F (Jr.)

As mentioned previously, Curry is one part of a strong front court for IWU. He is a gifted player athletically which allows him to grab rebounds at a high percentage. As a slasher, he is capable of having a strong performance offensively on a given night but he is mainly referred to as the energy/hustle guy. His single-game highs last season were 15 PTS (vs North Carolina Central), 9 rebounds (vs. Birmingham-Southern) and 3 AST (vs. Fontbonne).

Alex O’Neil C (Jr.)

Originally a Creighton and St. Cloud State University commit, Alex O”Neil transferred to IWU to further pursue his basketball career. During his time at Peoria Christian High School he averaged 13..9 PTS, 9.6 REB and 5.0 BLK a game. Those are some elite numbers and it makes sense that he is one of the more elite centers in Divison III basketball. He is more of a traditional center who is very skilled with his back to the basket. He also a Divison I athleticism which will make it tough for the young Illini bigs to contest for rebounds with him.

What will happen?

In this early season Exhibition game, I expect both teams to struggle out of the gate as they are still trying to gel and get acclimated to their respective system. Therfore I would not be surprised if this is a back and forth first half where either team struggles to take charge of the game. This will also be a battle of two different rosters dealing with the debate of what is better, talent or experience. IWU is a very fundamentally sound team that will not beat themselves often, which will really test these young Illini on the defensive side of the ball. Again, not to take anything away from IWU because they are an elite program, but the Fighting Illini are the superior team in terms of talent. The Illini will look to wear down IWU with their size and athleticism and thus proving to much to handle for IWU.

Prediction: Illinois 81 Illinois-Wesleyan 65

Thank you to Bob Quillman (@IWUhoopscom) for providing insight on the Illinois-Wesleyan Men’s Basketball team

Follow me on twitter Aarman Sethi (@aarmansethi)

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