Fighting Illini Basketball

A Future, Renewed: Class of 2019 Brings Needed Positivity and Hope

From the darkness, light.

As an Illini fan who was born in 1997, life has been tough in the revenue-sports section of my favorite university’s sports teams. It hasn’t always been bad, and I have gotten to watch elite athletes like Derron Williams and Dee Brown run the court, and Rashard Mendenhall and Vontae Davis perform on the gridiron, but for the revenue sports in my lifetime, it’s been far from great.

If all of the recruits that Illinois currently boasts for their 2019 recruiting class turn out to be as good as advertised, which so far they surely have looked the part, this class could be one of the best Illinois recruiting classes, in any sport, for as long as I’ve been alive. Sure, 21 years isn’t that long (or at least, that’s what I keep telling myself) but this could be a defining moment for the University of Illinois Athletics Department going forward.

And it’s well deserved.

For far too long, Illini fans have struggled in the misery and mediocracy of their revenue sports. And yes, before I’m corrected on this, I know non-revenue sports have been good if not great in recent years. As an avid baseball and volleyball player and fan, I couldn’t be happier, and as a student, it’s been an absolute blast to witness the success of these programs.

But what’s been missing in this consistent craving of success? Football and basketball.

Not only does the Illinois’ women’s basketball team look completely different than in years past, starting off the season with good non-conference play and a fresh feel under Head Coach Nancy Fahey, but the 2019 recruiting class for Illinois football looks to be a program-changer.

Spite me if you must, but despite some bad losses recently, I still have (maybe naïve) faith in Brad Underwood’s Illinois basketball program.

As I look to graduate after four (sometimes long) years at the University of Illinois, I look back at the sports I’ve witnessed and cast a sad shadow on the basketball and football programs. As a four-year member of both the Orange Krush and the Block I, far too long was I led to disappointment. That could all change with the going forward of the 2019 class.

Many of you know that my favorite subject so far in my young journalism career has been covering the NFL Draft and NFL prospects playing in the NCAA. For far too long have I yearned for a true NFL prospect to come out of this Illini program.

My heart has been enlightened in recent years with performances from Illini alums like Clayton Fejedelem, Geronimo Allison, Justin Hardee, and many other UDFAs and late-round draftees that have risen to the occasion of the NFL.

Though I’ve loved these moments of greatness, and greatly respect those athletes and every athlete to come through the program, it isn’t enough. And with the classes of 2018 and 2019, it might be time that I, and Illini fans like me, get some much-needed encouragement in that front.

Though it won’t be a while until prospects like Isaiah Williams, Marquez Beason, and Shammond Cooper make it through the ranks and (knock on wood) declare for the NFL Draft, the thought of it should serve to provide a sense of hope for Illini fans.

With the commitment of Shammond Cooper tonight at the All-American Game, and the incoming transfer of the former MVP of that game in ex-Miami star Jeff Thomas, the future is finally looking up for Illini fans, and the program alike.

Though the Illini recruiting class won’t show that much better on the recruiting boards thanks to the way most recruiting services work, Cooper’s commitment brings a much-needed bright spot for a revenue-sports program that has been dreadful so far this year. Though there have been flashes where Illini basketball and football looked the part of a developing team that could have a presence in the Big Ten conference, it has seemed as though fate itself were against the Fighting Illini.

But for Illini football? There’s hope.

The Illini have recently landed great commitments from athletes like Williams, Beason, and Cooper, and are winning competitive recruiting battles all over the country in order to try to turn the program around.

I’ll have a more technically focused breakdown of what Shammond Cooper brings to the Illini team in the future, the do-it-all linebacker will fill what has been a hole at the linebacker spot for the Illini for years on end, but perhaps the most important thing that Cooper does for the Illini is provide hope.

I’ll be graduating from the prestigious Alma Mater in May, (likely) without seeing a Basketball team go to the NCAA Tournament, and definitely without seeing a Football team go to a bowl game.

As I make my exit from my home of four years, I’ll be looking forward to the great things to come.

The main reason I’m writing this is to tell— no, insist – Illini fans to keep their heads held high and eyes focused on the future. As a journalist, I’m not one to voice my opinions out loud, but until my next article, I’ll leave you with this opinion:

The future is bright.

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Illinois Basketball vs Georgetown: Keys to the Game

Tonight the Illinois Fighting Illini will take to the Lou Henson Court at the State Farm Center in Champaign for their second game of the regular season.

The Illini started off the season in front of a decent crowd, taking down Evansville (IN) in big fashion, by a score of 99-60. The Illini put on one of their best offensive showings under Brad Underwood, led by highly touted freshman, and former 5-star recruit,  Ayo Dosumnu who filled the stats sheet with 18 points, 6 rebounds, and 4 assists in 24 minutes on the court.

One of only two seniors on the team, Aaron Jordan, contributed to the cause with 19 points of his own, making 7 of his 12 shots. Junior JUCO Transfer Andres Feliz, along with sophomore Trent Frazier, also grabbed big numbers for the Illini, with 16 points and 10 points, respectively. Frazier assisted on seven Illinois scores, with Feliz assisting on three himself, along with grabbing three rebounds.

Freshman Giorgi Bezhanishvili was the leading rebounder for Illinois, with 10 rebounds in his debut game in the orange and blue.

Evansville is a good team when you let them catch-and-shoot, and they showed that against the Illini, but Brad Underwood’s defense did enough, holding the Purple Aces to just 6 of 24 shooting from behind the arc.

Tonight, however, will be a completely different opponent for the Illini, as they will play host to the Georgetown Hoyas. The Hoyas will serve as the first true test to where this Illinois program stands in its second year under Head Coach Brad Underwood, but what will it take for Underwood and his players to get the job done?

Here’s my thoughts.

 

Keys to the Game

 

Can Illinois contain the Georgetown frontcourt?

Illinois Basketball has had a problem in recent years. Amidst all of the other things that you can say about the Illinois program since the last glimpses of historical success, this problem has stood (almost) the test of time.

Illinois lacks a true Big Ten Caliber center, or do they?

Freshman Giorgi Bezhanishvili pulled down 10 rebounds last week, and took advantage of a massive height advantage against Evansville (who were missing their starting Center, due to a suspension). Other Freshman Samba Kane was inactive against Evansville due to a violation of team rules, but Brad Underwood has confirmed he will be available for tonight’s game. Graduate transfer Adonis De La Rosa’s status is still up in air, as he attempts to make up ground lost with his new program due to an injury that kept him out of early season practices. De La Rosa will be a fantastic addition to the Illinois program when he is healthy, but for now, his availability is unclear headed into this game.

Georgetown comes to town with a height advantage in the paint, and Hoyas center Jessie Govan is a legit NBA prospect, and could be one of the best big men the Illini face this season. He’s currently averaging 19.5 points, 7.5 rebounds, and 2.5 blocks on the season.

The responsibility of containing Govan will fall largely on the shoulders of true freshman Bezhanishvili, along with Samba Kane coming in for occasional reps. Kipper Nichols experience could also come into play in out-rebounding Govan, as last season he often featured against opponents who had a height advantage. Bezhanishvili will come into a battle against Govan that will, undoubtedly, allow him to continue to learn and develop.

Should the fan-favorite freshman be able to contain Govan, the Illini will feel they have a real chance at going to 2-0 on the season.

 

Can the Illinois Guards continue to score at a high rate?

In their last game, the Illinois “Three-Headed Monster” of sophomore Trent Frazier, freshman Ayo Dosunmu, and junior Andres Feliz combined to score a massive 44 points for the Illini. They also combined to perform well in the rebounding and assist category.

Brad Underwood feels great about this guard combination, aided by defensive-standout DaMonte Williams, and freshman Alan Griffin, who was a standout in New York as a hot-handed shooter. With so much youth and talent on the roster, the Illini will hope their proficiency in small-ball will allow them to overcome any height disadvantage they face tonight against the Hoyas, and for the rest of the season.

Small, fast-paced play is a virtual “Ten Commandment” of Brad Underwood basketball, and they’ll look to continue to improve in that category as they  come up against a talented group of young guards, including the high-flying Mac McClung.

The young Illinois guards will continue to try to perform, and could prove too big a task for even talented young guards Mac McClung and James Akinjo. The duo is currently playing in its third collegiate matchup, and will face its toughest test yet in an underrated group of Illini guards.

If all four young guards are at the top of their game in the game tonight, it could be a heck of an early-season matchup for the two combinations.

 

Can Illinois continue to force massive amounts of turnovers?

In their game against Evansville, the full-court pressure and half-court pressure of the Illini seemed to overwhelm the Purple Aces at times.

In fashion with that trend, the Aces turned the ball over a massive 24 times. The Illini capitalized, and turned those turnovers into several fastbreaks throughout the night. Illinois, as stated above, faces another group of young guards, but the Hoyas also boast an older group of starters and reserves than Evansville did, and turnovers could be harder to come by.

Last season, the Illini performed well in the turnover category. This season’s recruiting class increased the capabilities of the Illini in the defensive category, with the addition of length and quickness when compared to last year’s roster.

Freshman guard Ayo Dosunmu was known for his quick hands in high school, and has already showed the capability to force turnovers in the young season. Add that to Brad Underwood’s defensive style, which is consistently changing and capitalizing on the mistakes of opposing offenses, and it bodes well for the Illini in the turnover category.

To me the second most important thing the Illini have to do tonight, besides overcoming a height advantage, will be forcing the talented young duo of  McClung and Akinjo to turn the ball over. If the guards have trouble controlling the ball, it will be much harder for Georgetown to take advantage of the height difference between the two teams.

 

Illinois face a wholly different task tonight against the Hoyas, but if they can force turnovers, overcome the height difference, and continue to provide offensive firepower, they should move to 2-0 on the young season before being tested in the Maui invitational.