Illinois Fighting Illini Basketball 2021/22 Season Preview


There is going to come a point, maybe we’re even there already, when Illinois Fighting Illini basketball, in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, is going to feel like Chicago Cubs baseball 1909-2015. Or the White Sox 1918-2004. Or the Red Sox 1919-2003.

For whatever reason, it’s the 2nd round that seems to be where Illinois basketball is snake-bitten. They have lost in this exact round nine of the last 19 times, including the last three. They have not advanced past this round since the famed Champaign Campaign of 2004-05.

In other words, this year is about one thing- breaking that hex. It’s time to FINALLY make it back to a round that actually has a nickname to it (sweet sixteen, elite eight, etc.). No matter what you do in the regular season, or the conference tournament, or what your NCAA Tournament profile is…it is what happens in March Madness that really counts; especially so with this team!

Last Time Out

That all said, it really is a shame that college basketball is this strange sport where everyone you know loves the postseason, but only a very tiny sliver of the population actually pays a lot of attention to the rest of the year.

It’s really unfair, to say the least, and the 2020-21 Illini basketball are a prime example. They set a school record for Big Ten wins, had more Big Ten wins than anybody in the league, won the conference tournament and earned a #1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.

Yet we’re still fixated on what happened in the big dance, when a much lower-seeded Loyola team knocked them out in the second round and devastated their season. The Ramblers completely controlled that game from start to finish, as Porter Moser thoroughly out-coached Brad Underwood.

It wasn’t just game-planning though, as the Ramblers bought in to executing the game plan perfectly.

We had an exclusive with Drew Valentine, an assistant on Moser’s staff for that game and now the current head coach since Moser left for Oklahoma, and he broke it all down for us. He explained how they limited Kofi Cockburn and shut down Ayo Dosunumu.

At Illini Media Day, Underwood explained how it felt to be on the receiving end:

“I call it the abruptness of the end. It happened so quick, we were on such an incredible roll and we can look as a million reasons why we lost that game, but you have to understand that game going in and it cannot be a night where you perform badly, and if you do, you have to be tough enough to get through that. So I want our guys to understand that and never forget it.

“We have to learn from the that crappy feeling in the locker room.”

Key Players

Kofi Cockburn, Center 

It’s his team now, and he should be an All-American. After testing the NBA waters and flirting with the transfer portal, he knows who he is now and where he stands. He also knows what he has to do to make himself a true first round NBA Draft prospect.

Doing some damage in the NCAA Tournament would definitely help.

Andre Curbelo

As much as Illini Nation will miss Ayo Dosumnu, and indeed they will really miss him, watching Curbelo assume a greater and bigger role will be a lot of fun. As Underwood as said, Curbelo is an alpha, and now that he’s going to be the true floor general, things should get really exciting.

Last season you only got the appetizer portion of all that he brings to the table. Now it’s the main course.

Alfonso Plummer, Wing

Underwood said this is the best shooter he’s ever coached, and that includes the first name he brought up- Phil Forte at Oklahoma State.

Omar Payne, Forward

He brings a good 15-17ft jump shot, and he’s done a good job contesting Kofi in practice everyday. He’s very versatile, and he’ll play with Kofi at times. The Florida transfer adds some depth in the bigs; something Illinois really needed.

Trent Frazier, Guard/Da’Monte Williams, Wing

With COVID and everything, these two guys have been forever, or as long as Tracy Abrams was here (whichever is a longer period of time). Or at least this is how it feels, but that’s a good thing. You know all of the positive attributes that these two veterans offer, and this team only goes as far as their role players and glue guys can take them.

Illini Basketball Circle the Date

The first exhibition is Saturday already! Seriously:

We could really start to see a rivalry develop here with Michigan as they’ll contend for the top of the league with Purdue, plus Wolverines big man Hunter Dickinson called Illini fans “annoying” at Big Ten Media Day.

Illinois gets Michigan on Jan. 14 and goes there on Feb 27. They play Purdue at home on MLK day and in West Lafayette Feb. 10. Non-conference wise, you have of course, the Braggin’ Rights against Mizzou, on Dec. 22, plus at Marquette in the Gavitt Games and hosting Notre Dame in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge.

Although Arizona is down, having them come in is still a big deal and should be fun.

Illini Basketball Bottom Line

Curbelo said at Big Ten Media Day that this team could be better than last year. There is absolutely nothing wrong with thinking or saying that, especially as they enter the season ranked #5 in KenPom and #11 in the AP.

It will be difficult for them to match last year’s regular season- that’s true. But no one will care about that if they can FINALLY MAKE IT TO THE SECOND WEEKEND of March Madness. No matter how you get there, just get there! Anything beyond that is just gravy at this point, and any real, informed Illini basketball fan will agree on that.

2021-22 College Basketball Season Preview Series

Illinois  Illini Final Four Odds  Northwestern   DePaul    Loyola   Purdue

Paul M. Banks is the owner/manager of The Bank (TheSportsBank.Net) and author of “Transatlantic Passage: How the English Premier League Redefined Soccer in America,” as well as “No, I Can’t Get You Free Tickets: Lessons Learned From a Life in the Sports Media Industry.”

He has regularly appeared in WGNSports Illustrated and the Chicago Tribune, and co-hosts the After Extra Time podcastFollow him on Twitter and Instagram

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