The Fighting Illini are Title Contenders

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Kofi Cockburn, Trent Frazier, Alfonso Plummer, Andre Curbelo, and other key pieces all left the Illinois Fighting Illini, but somehow the team is just fine. An argument can be made that they are even better and are certainly title contenders for the 2022-23 season.

Head coach Brad Underwood has done a remarkable job in his five seasons in Champaign-Urbana and is only just beginning. He brought back the rich tradition of basketball to the state of Illinois. The State Farm Center is constantly rocking with sold-out crowds looking to witness what he has done with the team.

The University of Illinois has easily been the most active team in the transfer portal and probably the most successful one as well. Snagging Terrence Shannon Jr. from Texas Tech and Matthew Mayer, while also having a top 10 recruiting class coming next season, Illinois is an intriguing team to make a run in March.

The Skyy’s the Limit

The future of the Illini is in great hands thanks to incoming freshman guard Skyy Clark who comes in as the ESPN No. 25 ranked recruit in the country. Add the No. 52 ranked player Ty Rodgers and the No. 83 ranked Jaylen Epps, and the Big Ten Conference is in trouble.

This team really had slim hopes for this coming season after their loss against Houston in the Round of 32. An aggressive offseason by the coaching staff changed the direction of this team in less than two months. Not only that, but the team is still active in the transfer portal.

Pete Nance of Northwestern is still being heavily recruited by assistant coach Tim Anderson and the rest of the staff.

Skyy “Afroman” Clark looks to immediately have an impact on the roster. Averaging 23 points, five rebounds, and three steals per game in high school, his game should translate well at the next level. He and his freshman teammates look to potentially form a big three as they attempt to win wearing the orange and blue.

Projected Lineup

Last month, projecting the starting lineup for the Illini would be very hard, but today, we have a much better idea of what it may look like. A trip to March Madness seems almost inevitable looking at their current pieces.

Starting at point guard will be Clark. This is a no-brainer, as he will be a key piece to leading the Illini to the promised land. The other guard will be the Chicago native Shannon Jr. who averaged 10.4 points in 25 minutes per game.

Things get trickier here. At the first forward position, RJ Melendez will get the nod. He did not get a lot of attention until late in his freshman season, but he scored nine points in 20 minutes against Houston in the NCAA Tournament. Playing the other forward will be Mayer who averaged 9.8 points and 5.0 rebounds at Baylor last season.

Rounding out the starting lineup is the big man, Coleman Hawkins. He will move to center as the All-American Cockburn pursues an NBA career. Hawkins looks to have a breakout year with a lot more being asked of him.

There is a lot of star power in this lineup, but the reason Illinois can compete for a title is because of their depth. Rodgers, Eps, Luke Goode, Dain Dainja and Jacob Grandison who could still potentially come back to Illinois (and compete for a starting spot) all coming off the bench is a top bench in the league.

Look out for Dainja next season. I think he should start at center, but have a feeling he will begin the season on the bench. Dainja is 6’9” and 270 pounds with a 7’7” wingspan. His length will be important if the team makes a run.

Illinois is in an amazing spot for next season. Shannon Jr. and Mayer both love to play fast and are at their best running downhill and they can do that at Illinois. Underwood will run a deeper rotation than he has in previous years that features an offense that constantly runs.

The team lost a lot but gained even more. Illinois basketball will be a top team next season and can easily compete for both a conference and national title.