A Beginner’s Guide To The Illinois Men’s Basketball Team
Welcome to the University of Illinois men's basketball bandwagon. It's about to get pretty full. Here's what you need to know.
The Coach: Brad Underwood
Brad Underwood is intense and his players love him to death. Shot to coaching stardom during his first Division I gig with Stephen F. Austin. He guided them to a conference championship in 2015 and then as a 13-seed upset West Virginia in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. Went to Oklahoma State (a possible Sweet 16 matchup for the 2021 Illini) for a year before taking the Illinois job in 2017.
The Illinois program was in shambles. The previous coach John Groce was a good coach but poor recruiter. Underwood changed that immediately and took a program from the bottom of the Big 10 to national title contender in 4 years. The turnaround began when Chicago star Ayo Dosunmu announced he would be going to the University of Illinois.
The Superstar: Ayo Dosunmu
Depending on what happens over the next few weeks, Ayo Dosunmu could go down as the most important, if not the best player in Illinois basketball history. He's wired differently. He has an OUTSTANDING support system in his family. He also is unquestionably the best late-game scorer the college game has seen in a long time. When the Illini need a basket late in games, they've turned to Ayo and he rarely disappoints.
That's a 2 and a half minute highlight package of his late-game heroics over his 3-year career at Illinois. He wears number 11 just like Dee Brown did. His hair is immediately identifiable and he is wearing an intimidating mask after getting punched in the face and breaking his nose against Michigan St a few weeks ago.
Ayo said that he wanted to bring his state's basketball team back to a championship level and he has done exactly that. There is literally nothing not to like about this kid. A theme you'll see throughout the team.
The Big Man: Kofi Cockburn
The 7-foot Jamaican really only wants to do one thing on the offensive end of the floor. Dunk and dunk hard. Watch any nationally televised Illinois game this season and the announcers will definitely make a Shaq comparison before the second half starts. He IS that big and he CAN be that dominant.
He and Ayo were seriously considering entering the NBA draft after last season before COVID hit. Both decided, together, to return to Illinois and try to win a championship. Both players have made huge improvements over last year, most noticeably in Cockburn. Dosunmu and Cockburn represent the most lethal inside-outside combo in the tournament.
As ferocious as Cockburn is on the court is as docile he is off the court. Truly a gentle giant and the Jamaican brings a world-view to the college team.
The Senior: Trent Frazier
Trent Frazier was a big-time scorer his freshman year. Then Ayo Dosunmu announced he would be going to Illinois. Frazier understood that he would no longer be the primary scorer and instead focused on his defense. He is definitely a general on the floor and an extension of Coach Underwood. Frazier made the Big Ten All-Defensive 1st Team this year and has the trust of everyone in the system.
Every NCAA championship team has a "Trent Frazier" on the team. A fan favorite and regardless of what happens over the next three weeks will always be an Illini legend.
The Jester: Giorgi Bezhanishvili
Like Trent Frazier, Giorgi saw his role on the team change over the years. He was the starting center, and a good one before Kofi Cockburn joined the team. He embraced the role of backup center and always gives the Illini great effort when he comes in to spell Cockburn.
More importantly, Giorgi is the heart of this team. As gregarious as they come. He hails from the country of Georgia and because he doesn't have regular contact with his own family he has turned the Illini basketball team into his American family. It is hard to find a shot of Giorgi without his arm around a teammate. He and Cockburn have an especially tight bond. The two foreign-born 7 footers share an apartment and are best friends. Here are the two of them after the Big Ten Championship game.
And he can salsa.
The Magician: Andre Curbelo
The freshman point guard is often compared to Javy Baez, the shortstop for the Cubs. Some of the things Papi (his preferred nickname) does on the court are unbelievable.
He won the Big Ten Sixth Man of the Year award and is instant energy for the Illini off the bench. He's always looking (sometimes too hard) to make an amazing pass for an assist but he also has an uncanny way of getting to the rim.
An exciting player that could become a national darling with a few signature "Papi" plays. Also has awesome hair. The Puerto Rican high school star is yet another player for Coach Underwood not born in the contiguous 48.
The Sharpshooter: Adam Miller
Also has awesome hair.
More impressively, Miller is the two-time Mr. Basketball for the state of Illinois. Ace Wolf (Miller's preferred nickname) was supposed to team up with Curbelo to be the Illini's starting backcourt when Dosunmu left for the NBA. When Ayo announced his return to the team. Miller, like many others on the team, recognized that they wouldn't be the focus of the offense his freshman year and was ok with it.
Miller is a deadly 3-point shooter when left open. The Fighting Illini are in great hands with him and Curbelo in the backcourt the next few seasons.
The Glue Guy: Da'Monte Williams
Simply put, if Brad Underwood needs something done on the court Williams will do it. Big 3? No problem. Grab a big rebound? Da'Monte is on it. Take a charge? Already done. Like fellow senior Trent Frazier, every championship team has a guy like this on it. Williams will have a big moment in the tournament and it will probably be a 3-pointer. Williams doesn't shoot many but makes a lot of the ones he does. He made 57% of the 3s he took this year, DOWN from about 70% halfway through the season.
He's also the son of former Illini great Frankie Williams. People forget that he was once on the cover of ESPN The Magazine.
You should be prepared to watch some Illini basketball now. There's only a maximum of 6 games left with this team. Looking forward to all of them.
ALSO. Their social media team just posted this. They have been making incredible content. Narrated by Andres Feliz, a senior leader on last year's team.