CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (AP) — The Illinois team that takes the court on Nov. 10 against Southern for the season opener will look a lot different than it did a year ago.
The sideline will have a new look, too.
After failing to make the NCAA Tournament for a fourth straight season, coach John Groce was fired and the Illini hired Brad Underwood of Oklahoma State to help the program return to prominence in the Big Ten.
“I’ve been very, very excited at Illinois to this point in terms of our fans and our passion,” Underwood said. “And getting to fill the State Farm Center is something I’m excited about.”
Last season, the Illini finished 20-15 and were led by seniors Malcolm Hill and Tracy Abrams. Hill finished his career ranked third in school history on the all-time scoring list with 1,846 points and Abrams finished third all-time with 138 games played.
Underwood knows his backcourt lacks experience with those two veterans gone, but he doesn’t believe there has been any drop in talent. Illinois has brought in a number of guards this season and none may be more important than freshman Mark Smith. Smith was named the 2017 Mr. Basketball of Illinois after averaging 21.9 points, 8.4 assists and 8.2 rebounds per game in his senior campaign at Edwardsville.
Underwood said that Smith’s 6-foot-4 and 220-pound frame will make him a tough guard for any opponent.
“It’s unfair for me to compare him,” Underwood said. “But I do compare him a little bit to Jason Kidd back in the day. He’s got that type of athleticism.”
Forward Michael Finke is one of a few returning players with a lot of experience. Underwood said he will look for the junior to take on more of a leadership role this season.
Finke shot 41 percent from behind the arc last year and is excited about how he’ll be implemented into Underwood’s new offense.
“(I’m) feeling really valued in this system,” Finke said. “I think I can do a lot of damage.”
STARTING POINT GUARD
Sophomore Te’Jon Lucas will most likely be the Illini’s starting point guard. He appeared in 31 games last season and started in the last 15. He also led the team in assists with 3.1 per game. Lucas returned to practice in mid-October after being held out with a concussion. Underwood said Lucas suffered the injury after a collision with Smith.
Illinois lost one of its most prolific scorers with the departure of Hill, but they may have found a strong replacement in fifth-year transfer Mark Alstork, who averaged 19 points at Wright State last season. He scored 1,042 points in just two years with the Raiders.
Last year, senior Maverick Morgan was second on the team in scoring at 9.9 points per game. This season, Leron Black will have to step up and fill that void in the front court. Black averaged 8.1 points and a team-high 6.3 rebounds during his sophomore year. He also started 27 games and scored in double-digits 13 times.
“I think he’s an all-Big Ten-caliber player,” Underwood said. “I’ve told him that. I think he’s a guy that can be a double-digit rebounder the way we play.”
RETURN FROM INJURY
Along with Smith and Trent Frazier, Da’Monte Williams is another guard who will also make his college debut this season. Williams tore his ACL last year at Peoria Manuel high school, and was sidelined for much of the team’s summer and preseason workouts. Now that he’s back, Underwood believes he can help a lot with the Illini’s perimeter defense.
“I think he’s got a chance to be an elite defender,” Underwood said. “He’s shown that at times in practice, and yet Da’Monte is still not, what I would consider, in tip-top shape.”
The Illini won just eight games in the Big Ten last year and lost in the quarterfinals of the NIT. In his one year at Oklahoma State, Underwood led his team to the NCAA Tournament behind one of the best offenses in the country. The Cowboys ranked eighth in the nation at 85.7 points per game and if Underwood can help revamp the Illini’s offense, they could make the NCAA Tournament for the first time in five seasons.
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