Hoops mailbag: DI staff writer breaks down offseason basketball questions

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Cameron Krasucki

Sophomore Kofi Cockburn gets hyped up by Coach Ron Coleman Jan. 29 for their game against Iowa. While basketball is offseason, questions about the team get answered.

By Brandon Simberg, Staff Writer

While transfer news has died down for Illinois, there is still plenty of news surrounding the team, including the ongoing assistant coach saga, and it’s also a good time to start looking at rotations for next season with a good chunk of the roster set in stone. Thank you to everyone who submitted questions.

What was your favorite game to cover last season? – Alec B.

This is an awesome question because last season produced a ton of memorable games and moments. Early in the year, I got to go to Indianapolis for the Jimmy V. Classic, which allowed me to see the teams that eventually played in the national championship in Baylor and Gonzaga.

Seeing my first Braggin’ Rights game in person was also super cool. The chance to cover Illinois’ Big Ten tournament run, followed immediately by a dash to the media room to watch the selection show and seeing Illinois announced as a one seed, was also super memorable and probably my number two choice.

But, for me, my favorite experience was Illinois’ win in February at Indiana. Walking through an empty Assembly Hall and taking it all in was something I won’t take for granted. Our media seats were also the closest we were all year to the bench, so seeing how coaches and players interacted and the things they said and called out gave me a whole new appreciation for a lot of members of the program. Plus, the game was an instant classic, with Illinois pulling out the win in overtime.

What should fans expect with the addition of Chester Frazier this offseason? – Zain B.

On the court, I expect Frazier to have a huge role with the guards. He is a former player who made his mark on the defensive end, so I think he’ll be able to help improve their games.

Off the court, I think Frazier will take the role of being the relatable, young, cool coach. Frazier is very active on Twitter, making himself visible and relatable to players. Chin Coleman seemed to have that role last season, as he presented himself with a swagger and connected to players with his Chicago ties. I think Frazier’s youthfulness and experience will help him relate to guys, which should benefit recruiting and the current team. 

Where are we at with Tre Mitchell? – @dkniffin32

Mitchell has been one of the biggest names in the portal since he decided to leave UMass. He’s a lengthy forward who can score at multiple levels and rebound, which is exactly what Illinois needs. Illinois did make Mitchell’s top six — along with Florida State, Georgia, Texas, Bryant and LSU. 

But things have gotten quiet on that end. Mitchell has been rumored to want a place that will take on former UMass assistant coach Tony Bergeron. Bergeron also coached Mitchell in high school at Woodstock Academy, so the two have a long relationship. 

While Brad Underwood didn’t say it directly, he mentioned in an offseason press conference that he wants to recruit players the right way, hinting they won’t put Bergeron on staff to land Mitchell. That being said, Mitchell’s options seem to be dwindling. Florida State, LSU and Texas now have deep frontcourts, and it doesn’t seem like Mitchell will go to another mid-major school. Georgia appears to be the leader in the clubhouse at this time, and while the odds aren’t in Illinois’ favor, I wouldn’t rule them out 100% given he has an opportunity to play a ton on a good team.

Who on the team can replace Adam Miller’s shooting from last season? – Alec B.

The obvious answer here appears to be Alfonso Plummer. The Utah transfer, who’s also a lefty, took 13.9 threes per 100 possessions, ranking 28th in the entire country. Expect him to let it fly often.

From there, I think it’ll be a collective effort. I don’t expect Trent Frazier to have a career low in three-point attempts per game again, and assume he returns to around six. Jacob Grandison shot an impressive 41.5% from deep last season, but it took time to earn the coaches’ trust, so I expect Grandison with a year under his belt to take more as well.

Illinois also has some impressive shooters coming in with Luke Goode and Brandin Podziemski. If one of them can carve out a consistent role, they also should be threats from beyond the arc.

Who do you predict the third assistant coach will be? – Sean 

Have you heard anything about the third coach? – Craig K.

Things have gone quiet over the past few weeks in terms of filling the last assistant coaching position. Illinois was linked to Creighton assistant Alan Huss and UConn assistant Kimani Young, but it appears those coaches are staying put. Truthfully, I don’t have intel as to who the next coach may be, but it should be wrapping up soon.

I don’t think Illinois will make a splashy hire given the timing of the coaching cycle. In terms of on-court coaching, Illinois likely will target someone who can help with the development of big men. That was the role Orlando Antigua had, and it’s not something that Frazier or Geoff Alexander specialize in.

The third assistant was never going to be able to fill the void left by Anitgua, who was an amazing recruiter. But Underwood and his staff have this program trending in the right direction and have been very active recruiting the 2022 class. 

Will Brandon Lieb play more or less than 5.5 mins a game next season? – Alec B.

Last season was essentially a redshirt year for Lieb, who technically didn’t need to redshirt as it was a free year of eligibility. As the roster currently stands, he’s the tallest player on it, and he’s technically the other true center behind Omar Payne. 

Still, I would take the under on this total. Lieb looked very raw last season and not quite strong enough to play serious minutes in the Big Ten. Assuming Illinois doesn’t add any more transfers, I think they will turn to Coleman Hawkins or Benjamin Bosmans-Verdonk for reserve minutes at the five.

Hawkins showed flashes of rim protection last season. Offensively, he seemed to play with the mindset of “don’t screw up” to stay on the floor. This year, with more opportunity, I think we’ll see him showcase some of his shooting and passing ability. I think an offseason of working with strength trainer Adam Fletcher will help him add the needed muscle to his frame to play the five. Bosmans-Verdonk was used in rare minutes last season, and while he’s shorter than Lieb, he at least has the strength to bang with opposing bigs for short stretches.

What would you add first: another five or a four? And who would you look to add? – Alec B.

I’m going to cop out here and say both. But adding someone who can play a bit at both spots would be best. The portal has quieted down lately, but I expect another wave of talented players to enter. With so many players in the NBA draft, there’s going to be a handful of players who elect to return to college. When those players return, they may transfer or go back to their original schools. When said players come back to their schools, that could leave fewer minutes for other players, who may look to transfer. When that second wave hits, I think Illinois should call the best fours and fives available and see who they can nab. 

I do think a five would provide more value than a four, as Illinois has a mix of guys who can take minutes there in Jacob Grandison, Da’Monte Williams and Coleman Hawkins. Omar Payne looks like a serviceable five, but he hasn’t started a ton of games in his college career, and the Big Ten should have some imposing frontcourt players next season.

 

@BrandonSimberg

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