Countdown to College Basketball: #15 Illinois Fighting Illini

Coming off a Big Ten Tournament Championship, and what should be a Co-Big Ten regular-season title (The Big Ten rules say otherwise), Illinois is once again looking to be one of the top teams in the sport this season. While losing Ayo Dosumnu will be tough to replace, getting Kofi Cockburn back to pair with a dynamic backcourt of André Curbello and Trent Frazier makes this one of the top teams not only in the Big Ten but in College Basketball as well. Now heading into this season, the question comes down to how important was Ayo Dosumnu actually for this Illini team, as losing the First Team All-American, and National Player of the year runner-up is a major loss for Illinois as they head into this season.  

Inside, Kofi Cockburn will continue to dominate, en route to being a leading candidate for Big Ten Player of the year. Cockburn is a 7’0, 290 pounds of pure muscle, he’s a prolific dunker, good post scorer, and decent free throw shooter who will overpower teams inside just by using brute force. His size and scoring ability make him unguardable for opponents. The key for Cockburn is improving defensively, he’s fine in the drop coverage scheme but can get exposed when he has to show any mobility out on the perimeter, which is mainly why he’s returning to school when he probably had the statistics and size to play professionally. 

The team has a great duo of guards in Andrė Curbello and Trent Frazier, who are both exciting players to watch this season. While Curbello gets the majority of the buzz, Frazier is the player who seems to be underrated this season, as in reality, he’s probably the best pure scorer for this team. Frazier has been limited to a stand and wait for Ayo to pass him the ball, type of role over the past couple of season’s but he’s an excellent scorer, who in the time where Dosumnu was out, made the key shots to win games for the Illini. Curbello is one of the most exciting players to watch, he’s a quick and athletic lead guard who has incredible vision, good scoring ability around the rim, but he definitely can get a little wild and isn’t a good shooter. Look for him to try to play within himself, attack the rim at will, and set up the rest of the roster with open looks. 

Filling out the rotation is a group of solid role players, who should allow the Illinois Big Three to have success. Da’Monte Williams is a good shooter, good defender, and good overall good glue guy, he’s going to primarily stand in the corner and shoot when open, while he’s probably the best wing defender. Jacob Grandison will round out the starting five, he’s a good shooter, who is one of the most efficient scorers in the sport, he’s a good defender and rebounder, at 6’8, he makes for the perfect modern-day four-man. Alfonso Plummer will be the sixth man for this team, Plummer is a combo guard who can run the point, but primarily will act as an energizer bunny off the bench, and he might be the favorite for Sixth man of the year. 

On the bench, Omar Payne will likely be the backup five man for this team, Payne is a 6’10 big man that is a good shot-blocker, rebounder, and dunker, who ensures that when Cockburn goes out, the defense remains the same. Austin Hutcherson projects as a good player on the wing, he’s a good shooter, who wasn’t healthy a season ago. RJ Melendez, Luke Goode, and Brandin Podziemski are all freshman that should receive a role early on to see which ones stick in the rotation later in the season. Melendez and Goode project as the best offensive pieces because of their catch and shoot ability, while Podziemski is a really good athlete and projects as a high-level defender. 

The Illini have one of the best trios in College Basketball with Cockburn, Curbello, and Frazier, who each will create their mismatches for teams, and lead this team to score at a high level. Cockburn will dominate offensively and there’s really no matchup for him because he just makes even the biggest players look small. While Cockburn’s ability to take up space, allows Curbello to be able to drive to the hole in order to either score around the rim, pass to Cockburn for a dunk, or kick out to a three-point shooter, which he’s good at doing all three. Add in a player who can create his own shot and score efficiently like Trent Frazier and this is one of the best trios you can create. 

The major question is whether or not the role pieces are ready to fill into their roles, while Williams shot very efficiently a season ago, he didn’t shoot that efficiently prior to last season. Grandison and Hutcherson both have the ability to impact the game but haven’t been relied upon as they will be this season. Add in that none of the freshmen are necessarily coming in with a high pedigree and you have a team that remains unknown for the role pieces. Add into the fact that much of the proven talent is still small, and the defense could be a cause for concern. With a trio as good as this one, the floor remains that this team will be a Top-25 team throughout the season, but if the expectation is that this is the team to win Illinois its first National Championship, that seems to be a little out of reach. 

Projected Rotation 

PG: André Curbello

SG: Trent Frazier

SF: Da’Monte Williams

PF: Jacob Grandison

C: Kofi Cockburn

B1: Alfonso Plummer

B2: Omar Payne

B3: Luke Goode

B4: RJ Melendez

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