Illinois ends season on a low note, looks toward program’s future
March 15, 2019
Illinois ended one of its worst seasons in school history — record-wise — in a similar fashion Thursday night, losing 83-62 to Iowa in the second round of the Big Ten Tournament.
The game was eerily similar to teams’ first meeting this season, a 95-71 Iowa win on Jan. 20.
In that game, Iowa overwhelmed Illinois on the perimeter, sinking an arena-record 15-of-21 3-point attempts. The Hawkeyes didn’t quite match that but went 12-of-23 from beyond the arc on Thursday.
The Illini had a lopsided matchup with the Hawkeyes, which had a wealth of size and jump-shooting threats, and it showed all night.
Six different Hawkeyes converted treys, including a deadly 5-of-6 clip from redshirt senior Nicholas Baer, who scored a game-high 17 points on 6-of-10 shooting. Iowa got off to a 4-of-6 start from beyond the arc, which helped establish a 26-20 lead Illinois couldn’t overtake.
Inside, the Hawkeyes did whatever they wanted to, despite finishing tied with 34 points in the paint.
Iowa had several vicious dunks, including forward Tyler Cook’s nasty slam over sophomore guard Da’Monte Williams at the 18:23 mark to put Iowa up 10.
Repeating one of the season’s themes, the Illini were unable to limit any perimeter damage and allowed the Hawkeyes to work the ball into the paint and then back out around the 3-point arc.
Cook didn’t exactly tear Illinois up in either meeting (he had seven points in the first), but he racked up 12 points on 5-of-10 shooting to go with five rebounds and six assists.
Illinois had some success from range on the night, especially in the first half when it went 5-of-11 from three, but couldn’t go back and forth with Iowa as it hit three after three. For almost every Illinois basket, Iowa had an answer.
Senior guard Aaron Jordan, who scored six points on two 3-pointers in his final game, hit a three to cut Iowa’s lead to 58-45 with 11:10 left. But the very next possession, Baer drained a trey from the right side to erase it.
Then, Illini sophomore Trent Frazier missed a three of his own (he went just 1-of-6 from three) and Cook scored, helping the Hawkeyes stretch their lead even further.
After his team’s season was ended, head coach Brad Underwood talked about the issue of size for Illinois and matching up in the Big Ten.
“(Jordan) did an incredible job of most part in trying to battle teams with big fours,” Underwood said. “Tonight’s a good example of when you continue to be undersized and undermanned. We’re working to (address) that, that will help a lot of things.”
Illinois is set to add significant size next season in Oak Hill Academy commit Kofi Cockburn, who is 6-foot-10-inches and weighs 290 pounds, and in 6-foot-11-inch Santa Monica forward Antwaun January.
Keep the gang together
It’s imperative Illinois avoids a mass exodus similar to last season.
At the end of Underwood’s first year, a whopping five players transferred out of the program, while versatile Leron Black chose to forego his senior year and go pro.
A lot can happen between now and November.
Freshman Ayo Dosunmu faces a decision of whether to leave for the NBA draft or return for a second year. Though Dosunmu is a fringe first rounder at best in most projections, the Morgan Park product became the first-ever true freshman in Illinois history to lead the team in scoring, averaging 13.8 points per game.
As he has all season when asked, Dosunmu brushed off questions about the draft and his future.
“I’m not focused on that,” Dosunmu said. “I’m trying to focus on just playing together for the team, trying to get the new guys in and get bigger, stronger this offseason.”
It’s understandable Dosunmu wouldn’t reach or share a decision at this point, since he has until June 10 to put his name into the draft, go to the NBA combine and get feedback from scouts and teams.
The 2018 Illinois Mr. Basketball winner made it known he was coming to Champaign to win and bring the Illini back to prominence.
After a trying year in which the Illini finished with a 12-21 record — though it finished 7-13 in conference, an improvement of four wins — Dosunmu evaluated his campaign in disappointment.
“I’m very hard on myself, so I feel like this year was a failure because I came here to try to win and make the NCAA Tournament and we didn’t do that,” Dosunmu said. “I really don’t care about all the other accolades, my personal assessment of myself. I feel like this season was a failure.”
Underwood brushed off the same question when asked about it outside the locker room.
“We’ll talk about that some other time,” Underwood said. “Those all become family decisions and gathering information is the most important piece of that for (Dosunmu). He’s had a great freshman year, as has Giorgi (Bezhanishvili). They will have to evaluate their processes by what they feel is best for them.”
Dosunmu’s teammate and backcourt cohort Trent Frazier was supportive, though he said keeping the core together is “the biggest thing for us.”
“He’s doing what’s best for his family, his future,” Frazier said. “It’s nothing but love for that guy; that’s my brother. It’s been an honor playing with him this season. Obviously, I hope he comes back to play with us another year, but it’s all about family, man. He’s doing what’s best for his family and his future. Whatever happens, then we go from there.”
Four of the five transfers from last season were underclassmen, something which dramatically alters a program’s long-term look in terms of scholarship allocation and development.
Though Underwood certainly played young lineups for much of the season, players like Tevian Jones, Alan Griffin and Samba Kane didn’t see as much time as initially expected.
Griffin played the most of the trio of freshman, averaging 8.1 minutes (243 total), but Jones averaged 9.2 minutes while missing eight games due to suspension. Kane saw action in 18 games, averaging 4.8 minutes.
Frazier, who saw far more time and had more success than each transfer from Underwood’s first team, emphasized how important it is for Illinois to retain its talent.
“We don’t want that again,” Frazier said. “I really see a change in this program. This season, we woke the country up. We’re a great basketball team and I think we gained a lot of respect for the Big Ten. We’ll be back next year and I think we’ll be at the top of the Big Ten.”
For his part, Jones said he learned a lot in his freshman campaign, adjusting to the collegiate level and being able to stay “locked in” even when coming off the bench in short spurts.
Jones will look to add some strength with conditioning coach Adam Fletcher in the offseason, something guys like Dosunmu, Bezhanishvili, Griffin and Kane will all be working on as well.
Jones remained patient through the year, he said, even as he has admitted he saw less time on the court than expected.
“I wouldn’t really call it frustration,” Jones said. “I just try to stay humble. I knew the situation and stuff, so I wasn’t really getting frustrated. I just tried to keep my head.”
What lies ahead
If the Illini can keep from falling apart at the seams in the months to come, things will start looking up.
The only significant contributor the team is losing is guard Aaron Jordan, who was fifth in scoring (8.0 points per game) and second in rebounding (4.6 per game) and 3-point shooting (41.5 percent).
Though Jordan’s eligibility has expired, he told The Daily Illini he plans to return to Champaign next season as a graduate assistant.
He, like his teammates and Underwood, offered a bright outlook for the program’s future in the wake of his final game.
“We showed a lot of good things that we can build off of; I know the staff is going to build off of,” Jordan said. “The guys in this locker room, I know they’re going to hold each other accountable. That’s going to be the turning point, it’s going to be a player-led team. We showed a lot of that this year and to continue that, it’s going to be a good couple next years.”
Illinois is set to add Kofi Cockburn and Antwan January, who should be able to make a difference down low.
The team relied almost exclusively on Bezhanishvili to match up against and attack Big Ten opponents and it was evident the four and five positions are major points of need for the program.
Cockburn could slot in at the five if he adjusts well, which would allow Bezhanishvili to play more naturally as a four and avoid some of the double teams he dealt with since opponents identified him as the Illini’s only post threat.
Illinois will also look to add a grad transfer or commit on the wing, where it has yet to find consistent production, although both Jones and Griffin hope to grow into starting roles there.
Underwood has repeatedly said he’ll take his time to assess the season in the coming weeks, but the second-year Illinois coach thinks his team made noticeable strides in what he called “Year One” after making wholesale roster changes in the offseason.
“It was about establishing our culture and we’ve got that done,” Underwood said. “That’s the piece that allows Illinois basketball to be good. You get to get these guys back as sophomores and juniors, a year of experience, and keep adding guys. Recruiting never stops. Then we’ve got a chance to set this locker room and in the not-too-distant future, be here (in the Big Ten Tournament) on Saturday or Sunday.”