The Illini enter the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2013 in what was John Grace’s first season as Illinois’ head coach. After that year's controversial NCAA exit, it was all down hill from then on during his ill-fated tenure. Fortunately for the Illini fans, having Brad Underwood at the helm of Illinois basketball is paying more dividends in the form of wins on the court and in recruiting.
Underwood's team success started last year - but the upward trend lines were halted by the season's premature conclusion. With Ayo and Kofi returning to Champaign for one more season, the Illini were primed for a deep postseason run.
Now that the tournament is here, it’s clear to all that this Illini team is on a mission and they aren’t going to be satisfied unless they win it all. While anything can happen within a single elimination tournament, if the players on the team improve on the specific things listed below, the team will be a tough out and a final four lock.
Having the best closer in basketball is certainly is beneficial to this Illinois team. While many within the media address his effortless scoring ability, that downplays how good he is as a passer, rebounder, and his off-ball gravity (he's so good that players cannot play off of him as a shooter - they have to stay near him).
All of these aspects make it easier for everyone else to excel while he’s on the court. As long as Ayo doesn’t fall into the trap of playing hero ball, there really isn’t a ton he can do more than what he’s already done this season.
When it comes to the nation's most imposing center, even casual college basketball fans know his glaring weakness - free throw shooting. If Cockburn can can hit 60 to 70 percent from the line, he becomes an immensely more valuable player. Free throw accuracy gives teams no choice but to play him straight up. And it's clear that so far most teams don’t really have a body to play him straight up.
If Kofi is able to increase his free throw percentage and stay on the court, nobody will be able to stop him. Unless one recognizes that old guys in black and white striped shirts, blowing a whistle may be Kofi's kryptonite. Clearly, Kofi has to be careful, he's too important to the Illini on both ends of the court to risk his playing time with foolish reaches.
This year Trent was finally shown a bit of appreciation by the media when he was named to First Team B1G All Conference Defensive Team and the B1G Defensive Player of the Year by IlliniGuys. While Trent is required to score at the same volume he scored at during his freshman year, this means he is a very good third option.
As long as he can hit from deep, teams won’t be able to play off him, and this will allow him to be more valuable off the ball and as a driver. He can continue to get better as a driver, but overall his offensive progression has been exceptional in the conference season.
Most Illini fans thought that the freshman point guard would be really good - just not this good, or this good, this quickly. Curbelo has been electric, creating ridiculous amounts of space in the half court. Once he has his man beat, he can find the open man or get to the rim.
If he can limit his turnovers, he is a game changer, but with him it’s all about how well he is converting - whether it's an assist or a made shot. He’s a gambler and is going to try to the home run play. As long as he hits home runs enough, Underwood won’t be able to keep him off the court.
Of all the players on the team that get playing time, Miller is the one that has the most room for improvement. While his perimeter defense is better than advertised, his offensive game leaves a lot to be desired. His finishing ability has really struggled at this level and him developing a midrange game in the form of a floater could be really beneficial. He needs to hit open threes when they present themselves and make sure he continues his solid defense.
Another player who has shined, especially defensively, is the senior from Peoria. During his first 2 1/2 years, Williams struggled to shoot the ball from deep. Late last season, Williams somehow completely reversed that weakness and he is shooting 56% on the season. If he can continue to space the floor offensively and consistently defend guys bigger than him, he will help this team immensely. His contributions are far less visible to the average fan than they are an important key to the team's success.
Splitting time with Williams, Grandison will be occupying the stretch 4 role. He isn’t as good defensively, but he is shooting 40% from three-point range. He is absolutely lethal on offense as a cutter looking for the ball and seems to get about one put-back bucket per game. Grandison continuing to be a viable source of off-ball offense will force defenses to play Illinois straight up.
Easily one of the more polarizing players on the roster, Giorgi has been a consistently inconsistent. Honestly, his defense isn’t going to be great or a differentiator. Still, it was a perfect time for him to get his swagger back - just in time for the NCAA tournament. If Giorgi can maintain this momentum, it would take a lot of pressure off Kofi and let the big man get more rest or help if Kofi gets into foul trouble. Giorgi's play could become much more vital - depending on how the refs call the game.
There's been one upset of a #1 seed by a #16 team in college basketball history. This game will not be the second upset.
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