The Illini Men’s Basketball program enters an uncertain future with no clear plan.
Illinois lost its first round tournament game 73-63 to the Arkansas Razorbacks on Thursday night. Arkansas controlled significant portions of the game. Eric Musselman’s athletic squad pummeled the Illini with a +9 performance on the glass in a game where neither team topped 40% from the field or 30% from beyond the arc.
The end of the “hero ball” era in Champaign was set to bring about a new era of deeper tournament runs from a versatile roster not dependent on one superstar. No Ayo, no Kofi, no problem. Right?
The plan got off to a rocky start to say the least.
Granted, there really is no shame in losing to Arkansas. They have three McDonald’s All-Americans and a talented roster.
But this was supposed to be the Illinois team that could handle that kind of opponent on a big stage.
My colleague and Twitter defender Jack Jungmann wrote one of my favorite pieces ever at The Champaign Room to detail the events that led us all to this day. I won’t even attempt to recreate his magic, so please read his column again.
So where are we now?
Well, Matthew Mayer is out of eligibility. His one season in Champaign was bookended by inconsistent performances. But in between, he gave the Illini some (M)monster games and a signature personality for a squad that was always interesting if never predictable.
Amani Hansberry and Dravyn Gibbs-Lawhorn have signed National Letters of Intent to join the Illini next season. Hansberry is a versatile frontcourt chess piece with intensity and skill. Gibbs-Lawhorn is a tremendous scorer with the ability to change the game with the ball in his hands. Both performed at high levels this season and could be immediate and significant contributors to the 2023-24 Illini roster.
And that’s where the certainty ends.
I’m not going to speculate about the rumors of specific players entering the Transfer Portal. You’ve all heard the message board chatter about certain members of the current roster, so I’ll let that play out over the coming weeks.
But it has been a likely possibility all along that Terrence Shannon Jr. and Coleman Hawkins have been likely to move on to play professionally at season’s end. No announcement has been made, but it would be wise to plan roster construction decisions assuming both of those young men will be pursuing their NBA dreams.
And to them, godspeed and thank you. While the results weren’t what anyone wanted, a nation of Illini fans will continue supporting you in your future endeavors in or out of Champaign.
So the roster is in flux.
Is it a byproduct of the portal being a ravenous monster that consumes every player with a smidgen of doubt?
Is it because this generation is “soft” and entitled? (No, Boomer. It’s not.)
Is there an internal rationale behind the quantity and frequency of turnover on this particular roster and coaching staff?
Both have undergone hockey line change-levels of upheaval in recent years.
I’m looking at a common denominator. But this isn’t a column about that issue.
So what is the goal?
If the goal is to simply be better on the court than the previous regime, then the goal has been reached and no further comment is needed.
But if the goal is to be a postseason factor on a regular basis, it will come down to Xs and Os as well as Jimmys and Joes.
Illini 2024 commit Morez Johnson, currently starring at Chicago Catholic League powerhouse St. Rita, looks to be a big part of that future. His early commitment and dedication to the Illini is one of the brightest glimmers of light at the end of a tunnel that has looked like an oncoming train for much of the season.
Morez is a dominant force in the paint with length and athleticism. Holding Johnson’s commitment for another year will be a huge priority for Tim Anderson and Brad Underwood. But Morez and Hansberry together could form the frontcourt foundation of the next great Illini team…
If the Illini are able to surround them with perimeter snipers. 2024 downstate sharpshooter Cole Certa is a major Illini target, and based on visit history there seems to be traction there.
But Illinois can’t wait another season to acquire perimeter shooting. A healthy Luke Goode, if he returns, will bring a lot to the roster as a floor-stretching veteran presence. But the Illini need to hit the portal hard to find an Alfonso Plummer-like shooting presence.
Can they accomplish that kind of targeted portal search without Orlando Antigua? Time will tell.
2025 Chicago St. Ignatius guard Phoenix Gill is the prodigal son. He is the legacy recruit who took a leap in his sophomore season and played in the Class 3A Final Four in Champaign. A commitment from Gill (in a sense a re-commitment from his father to his alma mater) would go a long way in building future buzz.
Perhaps his former high school teammate AJ Redd can help the cause?
Either way, the Illini’s personnel future is murky at best. There are some promising pieces committed and signed. But now the free agency period of college basketball begins.
And if Illinois doesn’t come out of free agency with a primary ballhandler, a knockdown shooter, and likely another big man, the conference will continue to pass Brad Underwood’s squad by.
Enjoy the offseason, Illini Nation. I will be obsessively overreacting to every rumor and tracking names in the portal over the coming months. I’m sure you will too.
Brad Underwood is now on the clock.