Illini remain confident going into new season

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By Gabby Hajduk, Staff Writer

Just a month away from the beginning of men’s basketball season, head coach Brad Underwood and the Illini addressed the media at Big Ten Media Day on Wednesday.

Coming off a 12-21 season and a second-round Big Tent tournament loss, Underwood expressed his excitement to have a strong turnover of players this season. The Illini’s biggest loss from last season comes from Aaron Jordan, who averaged eight points per game.

“Well, I think we have a different swagger,” Underwood said. “I use that term — I think there’s a different feel about us — just from the experience standpoint … We have the ability to have guys that can lead the young guys, and that can lead the guys that maybe didn’t play as much last year. I think all those things are positive. And I think that there’s a confidence that comes with that.”

The Illini have their top three scorers returning, including All-Big Ten freshman selection sophomore Ayo Dosunmu. The Chicago native led the Illini in his freshman season with 13.8 points per game. Junior Trent Frazier and sophomore Giorgi Bezhanishvili followed with 13.7 and 12.5, respectively.

Dosunmu has already gained national attention, being voted to the preseason All-Big Ten team and a Third Team preseason All-American. While Dosunmu has acknowledged the recognition, he has remained focused on his team and continuing to improve.

“You’ve just got to get in that gym,” Dosunmu said. “That’s the only way to knock off all that noise … Of course, I see it because I’m a human, but I try my best not to let that get to affect where I’ve come from. I just stay locked in. Whenever I see stuff like that, I get in the gym and want to go harder, so when the bright lights come on, I’m ready for it.”

The Illini not only have Dosunmu back for another season, but 11 players are returning from last year’s roster. With the addition of freshmen like Kofi Cockburn and Benjamin Bosmans-Verdonk, there are higher expectations for Illinois than last season.

Illinois finished 10th in the Big Ten last season and 12th in Underwood’s first season; however, the Illini are projected to finish in the top half of the conference this season.

“I feel like there’s a little weight on our back from a lot of expectations,” Frazier said. “But, we can’t buy into that. We can’t settle for what people are saying, we have to be better. We’re going to continue to come to practice every day, work hard and do what coach Underwood wants us to do. I think that’s going to help us in the long run.”

With a year’s worth of experience playing together, Frazier and Dosunumu have high hopes for what they can accomplish as a duo. With both guards working in the offseason to improve strength-wise, they are on the same page.

While Frazier and Dosunmu both had strong offensive outings last year, they rarely had them on the same nights. Underwood said the pair has been very in tuned on both sides of the court and they have found that balance.

Although Frazier and Dosunmu will continue to be key offensive targets, Bezhanishvili and Cockburn on the court together could be the next big duo. Cockburn, a 7-foot, 290-pound center, is expected to be an impact freshman in the post.

Bezhanisvili and Cockburn coexisting will be a work-in-progress throughout the season, but Underwood said both of their unique talents can cause problems for opponents.

“I’m so much more confident on the court with him because he is such a great player,” Bezhanisvili said. “He is huge. I played with really big guys before at home, really great big guys and I was able to play well with them. So, I feel like there should be no problem playing well with Kofi.”

With all the pieces coming together, Underwood and the Illini are itching to get the season going. The Illini had their first official practice on Thursday as the work toward the goal of an NCAA tournament berth.

“I’m excited,” Dosunmu said. “I feel like this is our year to win.”

Illinois will play an exhibition game against Lewis on Nov. 1 but will start the regular season on Nov. 5 against Nicholls State at the State Farm Center.

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