We conclude the three part Kendall Gill exclusive with a discussion of the Illini. We asked the Olympia Fields native and Rich Central HS alum what Illinois basketball needs to do to finally reach the sweet sixteen (and beyond) again.
Following a second round blow-out loss to Houston last spring, Illinois is now 3-10 in their last 13 round of 32 games.
Current Illini coach Brad Underwood, now in his 10th season in coaching, has still never reached the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament.
On Wednesday (five days after this interview was conducted), it was announced that Underwood received another contract extension, one that will keep him at U of I through the ’27-’28 season. The deal, which gives him an annual $500,000 raise, brings his yearly salary to $4.1 million.
While Illinois achieved a share of the Big Ten regular season championship this season, and a Big Ten Tournament title last season, they still choked during March Madness, failing to even hold chalk in back-to-back years.
We asked Gill what the Illini need to do to avoid getting upset in the NCAA Tournament again.
“I believe you’re gonna need some bigger guards,” Kendall Gill responded.
“I thought that the guards this year were too small. You’re also going to need inside-out play.
“I thought Kofi did a great job this year, he was All-American. But he still has some weaknesses- particularly getting the basketball and when he’s double teamed, locating the right teammate with fluidity.
“I hope he stays another year, because I think he needs another year to play to hone his skills for the next level, if he’s going to play his best.
“If we can do that, then I think we’re going to get past the first, second round and not see defeat like we did this time.”
Interesting that Gill brought up the guards being too small, as four days after saying that, Andre Curbelo, a very undersized guard, left the program to enter the transfer portal.
The NBA record holder for game steals also brought up Illini recruiting.
“I also do think we need to keep getting our own (in-state) talent, to go to U of I,” the member of the Illini All-Century team said.
“If we can keep doing that, then we’ll be on the right road. A huge step in that is having the (high school boys basketball state) tournament back to Champaign.
“Back when I was in high school, we used to watch the state tournament every year on WGN every year and look at all of the top players all in one building on yourself. We need to continue that tradition.
“Because if we do everything that comes out of Chicago that’s good, they’re gonna at least take a look at us.”
Gill is right, and recruiting has actually been pretty solid during the Underwood regime, even with a near 100% coaching staff turnover last off-season.
Two of the top 10 highest-rated recruits of the past decade, Ty Rodgers and Jayden Epps, are part of this year’s freshmen class.
While recruiting is certainly something that receives way too much hype and importance these days, with the media providing way more coverage of it than is required, these class rankings should provide optimism for Illini fans.
Illinois recruiting can always be stronger and better, but the main issue right now isn’t landing talent- it’s maximizing it.
The Illini still haven’t been to a sweet sixteen since 2005, and over that time period, 80 other schools have.
Miami, a program with next to no tradition, have actually been three times over that time span.But again, Illinois has a lot of talent, and more is on the way.
In the last 10 recruiting cycles, Illinois has landed 18 four-star recruits, with 11 of them committing while Underwood has been in charge. Illinois also has a commitment from 2024 prospect Morez Johnson, who is the fifth-highest rated recruit since 2013.
Paul M. Banks is the owner/manager of The Sports Bank. He’s also the author of “Transatlantic Passage: How the English Premier League Redefined Soccer in America,” and “No, I Can’t Get You Free Tickets: Lessons Learned From a Life in the Sports Media Industry.”