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Illinois will look different because of Brad Underwood’s ‘very intentional’ reload


For three seasons, Illinois men’s basketball ran out a guy who looked different than dang near anyone else on the floor, on any given night. Kofi Cockburn was a 7-foot stack of chiseled volcanic rocks. The team strategized and deployed assets accordingly — good, bad and indifferent — largely because nothing and nobody was quite like Kofi.

It is now the summer of 2022.

And a lot of Illinois’ guys look … sort of the same?

And that’s … good, if not borderline ideal?

“We’ve been very intentional with trying to recruit and how we’ve gone about it,” Illini coach Brad Underwood says. “I think I enjoy coaching this way. I think there’s versatility. I think there’s speed. I think we have depth. We could be aggressive. I think it plays in the postseason. Now, we’ll see how that all works itself out, but it was very intentional. It was the way I think the game’s trending and moving, and we’re going to give it a whirl and see if it works.”

Even a cursory glance at the Illinois roster for 2022-23 confirms the gist: It’s a pivot to interchangeable parts and abundant depth, which should give Underwood and his staff more options for whom to play and how to play them. He says his team has been “very vanilla” on defense due to Cockburn’s presence, but a raft of higher-end wing defenders – transfers Matthew Mayer and Terrence Shannon Jr. foremost among them – should permit the Illini to “do some different things,” in the estimation of the head coach. Underwood also anticipates a return to “playing with pace,” after slipping from 79th to 179th year-to-year in adjusted tempo, per

Will it be enough to get Illinois to the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2005? The Athletic spoke with Underwood to get his thoughts on each scholarship player, to examine how the pieces might fall into place.

Matthew Mayer, 6-9, fifth-year senior

2021-22 numbers (at Baylor): 9.8 ppg, 5.0 rpg, 32.4 percent from 3-point range

Of this there is no doubt: Matthew Mayer is a national champion. “He’s been where we want to go,” Underwood says. “And I put tremendous value in that.”

But why hasn’t Mayer been where, presumably, he wants to go? Why are we still waiting upon the leading-man breakout that didn’t happen in four years at Baylor? Mayer can make tough shots you need an alpha player to make; he had an adjusted field goal percentage of 63.8 on guarded jumpers in 2021-22, per Synergy Sports. But he was average as a pick-and-roll ballhandler and below average in isolation scenarios. Is it because his usage rate was a career-low 22.9 percent last season with Baylor, undermining any chance to find a rhythm and assert himself? Or is everyone waiting for the bulb to flicker on, when it’s out of juice already?

Underwood calls Mayer a “world-class” defender, and Mayer did set career-bests with 41 steals and 26 blocks last season. That, plus the established offensive competency, suggests the floor is being a quality starter for Illinois. But the floor would also represent a failure, if the idea was to change scenery and change the narrative. “He’s always been a secondary-type piece maybe in his past,” Underwood says. “(Baylor has) had just unbelievable players. I think his role will change a little bit. So I hope that gives him some of the confidence to be great, to maximize. I think that he enjoys the work piece. That’s something he really has stressed that he wants to be a part of and get better. So, yeah, we’ll see. He’s a guy that knows it’s his last year and wants to be a next-level guy. He knows he’s got to come in and perform.”

Terrence Shannon Jr. will try to be more consistent for Illinois than he was for Texas Tech. (Kelley L Cox / USA Today)

Terrence Shannon, Jr., 6-6, senior

2021-22 numbers (at Texas Tech): 10.4 ppg, 2.6 rpg, 2.0 apg, 38.4 percent from 3-point range

Sometimes Terrence Shannon Jr. looks like a lottery pick. You see a night like Dec. 4, 2019, and a 24-point, eight-rebound effort for Texas Tech in a homecoming game of sorts at DePaul, and he cuts the precise profile of a modern pro guard. Sometimes Shannon looks like … well, he doesn’t look like much of anything, because he’s dang near invisible on the court, for whatever reason. It, too, is a conundrum. He, too, effectively has one more chance at one last stop to make a definitive statement about who he is.

The upside, for Underwood? A nagging back issue explains some of the inconsistencies in 2021-22. And all evidence appears to point to Shannon having the necessary want-to, which would be the first question he’d need to answer. “He’s been an unrelenting worker since he’s been here,” Underwood says. “He’s got Ayo Dosunmu work ethic — if not greater.”

Now for the follow-through. Shannon’s raw 3-point percentage ticked up in each of his three years in Lubbock, and if Underwood isn’t engaging in hyperbole about first impressions in Champaign, it should only improve. Shannon’s assist rate likewise rose all three seasons, too. His rebound rate went the other way, down to a career-low 6.3 percent in 2021-22, and he’ll need to be engaged on the glass if Illinois is going truly position-less and, at times, small. This should be a round-peg, round-hole fit, if Shannon’s head is in the right place. “He fits the way we want to play: fast,” Underwood says. “People forget he was an all-world football player, one of the top receivers out there. He’s got incredible speed. And now he’s 220 pounds. So I’m excited. I think his style of play fits us perfectly. I’ve always loved him on the defensive side. I think both he and Matt are elite defenders, and then you put our speed and the style of play we want to play, both those guys fit. I think both of them can blossom.”

Coleman Hawkins, 6-10, junior

2021-22 numbers: 5.9 ppg, 4.3 rpg, 1.5 apg

The theory of Coleman Hawkins got off to a rousing start in 2021-22. Three games, three starts, 43 points and 28 rebounds and eight assists in total — the sort of sample size just big enough, at just the right time of year, to create runaway imagination. The possibilities of a 6-10 wing who scores and rebounds and distributes? Limitless, no? Well, no. The theory of Coleman Hawkins met the reality of missed shots and declining self-assurance, and the starting spot was gone by mid-December. Hawkins played fewer than 20 minutes in each of a 16-game stretch between Dec. 18 and Feb. 24, including the bottoming-out of logging less than 10 minutes per night in a four-game span in late January and early February.

“It was hard last year for him,” Underwood says. “It wasn’t easy. He had to deal with adversity. He had to deal with a slump where he didn’t play well. He had to deal with me not playing him major minutes. And I always say this: When players come out of the other side of that, they’re usually primed for great things.”

So it’s a new theory for 2022-23. One in which Hawkins becomes one of many interchangeable parts in an offense with enhanced tempo and better spacing. His coaches are banking on the late-season signs of life — 18 points in a Big Ten tournament loss to Indiana, 10 points and eight boards in the first-round NCAA Tournament win over Chattanooga — as a harbinger and not an outlier. (“Confidence,” is the one-word reason Underwood gives for that.) But it’s still all theories. Hawkins was a pick-and-roll ballhandler on a mere eight possessions last season, per Synergy Sports. He was below average as the roll man, per Synergy. He had a ho-hum adjusted shooting rate of 44.4 percent on catch-and-shoot looks. He might be the walking inflection point for Illinois’ aspirations in general.

“The game becomes different for him without Kofi,” Underwood says. “We see him be able to drive it. We see him be able to pick and pop. We see him be able to play both ways on ball screens, with the ball and without it. He’s a tremendous shot blocker. He’s a guy that had some of the best performances defensively on Ron Harper and Keegan Murray. The struggles that he had last year will help him grow this year. And I’m excited. I’m excited for him because he had to go through it and he went through it. He came out of it with flying colors.”

Brandon Lieb, 7-foot, junior

2021-22 numbers: 10 games, 24 minutes played, eight points and seven rebounds total

When you’re the movable object to Kofi Cockburn’s irresistible force at practice, the days are long and the years are longer. Such was the lot of Brandon Lieb during his first two seasons in Champaign. “But from that,” Underwood says, “he’s gained tremendous toughness.”

With just 15 game appearances and 36 career minutes played, what Lieb looks like on the other side is anyone’s guess. Underwood likes Lieb’s potential as a pick-and-pop big. He likes that he’s added 30 pounds in his time in Champaign. He likes his potential for rim protection. And the Illini coach mostly likes what he calls Lieb’s “great spring,” when a very large weight was removed from him — figuratively and even somewhat literally.

What does that look like come November? Who knows, but it’s a start. “You just saw his confidence jump,” Underwood says. “Kofi wasn’t in the gym, and now all of a sudden, he goes, ‘I got an opportunity to play here.’ You just saw his drive to get better was a little bit higher. He saw the light at the end of the tunnel. And then his confidence took him to a new place. I felt great about it.”

Dain Dainja, 6-9, sophomore

2021-22 numbers (at Baylor): Three games and nine minutes played before sitting out due to injury and transferring mid-year to Illinois

After a washout in Waco and an arrival in Champaign as a mid-year transfer, the physical revolution of Dain Dainja has been well-documented: From 295 pounds when he first stepped on the scale to 262, according to Underwood, at the outset of summer 2022. “That’s pretty dramatic,” he says. But it’s of arguably less consequence than the skill set Dainja brings to the floor, and the memes or nicknames or general cult-hero status such a skill set could generate.

Dainja is 6-9 and brawny but also, apparently, deceptively nimble and dextrous for someone that size. This leaves his new coach only one way to describe the phenomenon.

“I call them dancing bears,” Underwood says.

Costumers in the Champaign-Urbana area, prepare for an influx of Illinois student-section ticket-holders, in search of an ursine ensemble.

That is if Dainja’s production matches the potential, which is totally impossible to gauge when a player has registered seven total possessions in his college career, per Synergy’s numbers. “His skill set, people are going to be shocked at,” Underwood says. “He could potentially be our best ball-handler. He’s a right-hand/left-hand guy — you can’t tell which hand he is. He’s a guy that allows us to play five out. He is not just a guy we’re going to lock on the blocks, that’s for sure. His game’s much more than that with his ball-handling, and he’s very quick-twitch for that size.”

Luke Goode, 6-7, sophomore

2021-22 numbers: 2.0 ppg, 1.8 rpg

We continue in the projection portion of Illinois’ roster, having some fun with small sample sizes for a player who logged double-digit minutes just three times after Jan. 1. Spot-ups accounted for 58.5 percent of Luke Goode’s possessions as a freshman. He drove the ball on seven of them, got fouled on another one … and the rest were jumpers. And jumpers were indeed a Goode thing: He had an adjusted field goal percentage of 54.3 and averaged 1.087 points per possession on those jumpers, which ranked in the 91st percentile nationally. But what more is there? What’s in the expansion pack?

“He is no doubt going to be one of the elite shooters in the Big Ten,” Underwood says. “He’s tough. Again, here’s a guy that needed strength. He showed in spurts last year he could be really good. He’s fearless. He’s going to have a great year. There’s no doubt. He’s going to have tremendous value because of his ability to shoot the ball. He’s more than just a catch-and-shoot guy. He’s a guy that could put on the floor a couple dribbles. He’s a guy that could rip off screens.”

He could. We just haven’t seen it much yet, which makes Goode more of a variable than a known quantity. But Underwood lauds the sophomore as a “natural-born leader” who does “everything full-speed,” so the quicker he comes along, the quicker the Illini have an emotional and spiritual anchor.

R.J. Melendez, 6-7, sophomore

2021-22 numbers: 3.8 ppg, 1.7 rpg

It isn’t a college basketball summer without some intensely aggressive optimism, right? R.J. Melendez, come on down!

“You see what Keegan (Murray) and Johnny Davis did from one year to the next,” Underwood says. “Not saying he will do that, but he is capable.”

To be clear: If Melendez goes from consensus No. 81 recruit per the RSCI to starting one game as a freshman to NBA Draft lottery pick over two-plus years … yes, Illinois probably will have a very, very nice season. So how to assess if the head coach is correct, that he is indeed capable of such a leap? Well, Melendez’s 1.217 points per possession registered in the 99th percentile nationally, per Synergy … which is empirically great, but his 69 possessions were just 2.7 percent of Illinois’ total. By comparison? Murray had 209 possessions (with a 1.048 PPP) as a freshman. Davis used 253 in his first season (with a 0.85 PPP). In sum: Melendez has the enticing ability but probably not enough floor time, just yet, to wholeheartedly buy what Underwood is selling here.

Still, Melendez has added 18 pounds in the offseason and stuck around Champaign in May for workouts and conditioning. “Physically he wasn’t ready to play last year,” Underwood says. And yet he produced. Whatever comparisons you want to conjure for Melendez, however fair or unfair they are, it won’t change the intrigue about what he does next.

“Maybe as talented a guy as we’ve had here,” Underwood says.

After a standout high school career that ended early with a torn ACL, Skyy Clark comes to Illinois with big expectations. (Brian Rothmuller / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

The newcomers

Skyy Clark, 6-3, freshman

So exactly how soon did Illinois coaches send a text or make a call, once the five-star guard prospect was no longer committed to Kentucky? “It was pretty quick,” Underwood says with a laugh.

How swiftly Illinois enjoys on-floor returns of signing its highest-ranked recruit of the last two decades could sway 2021-22 significantly. Clark is ready-made for the Big Ten at 6-3 and a listed 200 pounds. And as Underwood points out, the fit is as important as the incoming talent, after Illinois lost so many players who spent a large amount of time on the ball. But Clark also missed a chunk of his final season at Monteverde (Fla.) Academy after suffering a partially torn ACL, and he’s also a freshman. An undoubtedly welcome addition, and a wait-and-see predicament.

“You’re talking about an elite athlete,” Underwood says. “He’s an unbelievably great kid and an unbelievable worker. He fits right in. He’s an elite shooter, and all that physical stuff will translate. But the big part is the mental piece and just learning.”

Jayden Epps, 6-2, freshman

Comparison time again!

“He’s a Frank Mason-type guy,” Underwood says.

Epps actually has a few inches and a couple pounds — he’s listed at 190 on the initial 2022-23 roster — on the former Kansas star to which Underwood refers. Mason also wasn’t a volume scorer until his senior season, and that appears to be Epps’ forte walking in the door. “Jayden is as gifted a scorer as I’ve seen,” Underwood says. “He just knows how to put the ball in the basket. And when his ball gets up on the rim, it always falls in. So, he’s a guy who can play on the ball. He can play off the ball. He and Skyy and Sencire (Harris) — all three of those guys have the ability to beat you one-on-one, which was something that was a problem for us last year.”

Sencire Harris, 6-4, freshman

Downside: A playing weight of 160 pounds, which is what Illinois currently lists Harris at, isn’t going to withstand the grind of a power-conference schedule. Upside? The athleticism might be off the charts once the strength comes along. “He’s already broken all of (strength coach Adam Fletcher’s) records in terms of jumping. All the quick-twitch stuff in terms of what we do with force plates. He’s so gifted athletically. And even though he doesn’t have tremendous weight on him yet, he’s pretty strong.”

Ty Rodgers, 6-6, freshman

Of all the incoming freshmen, Rodgers might be the most compelling. He’s emblematic of the way Illinois wants to play, period, as a wing who in Underwood’s estimation can play anything from point guard to power forward while guarding all five spots. And while adding some scoring punch from guards who can go get their own shot has value, as Underwood noted, Rodgers might not need to score to contribute to winning in a significant way. “Ty was the kid that I thought on the AAU circuit last year was the one player who impacted winning the most,” Underwood says. “That’s a huge thing I look for. Not the guy who scores the most points, but the guy who does all the other things to help you win. He was as good a passer as I saw last year on the circuit. He elevates everybody else’s game around him.”

(Top photo of Coleman Hawkins: Geoff Burke / USA Today)

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