No Big Ten men’s basketball team has won more conference games in the past three seasons than Illinois.
Coach Brad Underwood resurrected the Illini from Power Five purgatory, compiling a conference record of 44-16 in that span. Illinois capped the race with a shared the Big Ten regular season title before another NCAA Tournament second round exit in March.
Wins, however, don’t provide immunity to the ever-changing landscape of college basketball, in which successful programs bleed stars who depart early for the NBA or through the transfer portal.
“I came here as a young guy, didn’t make an all-star game in high school and left here as a two-time All-American,” Underwood said. “One of the most famous players in our history. His shirt will hang here.
Also gone are fifth-year seniors Trent Frazier and Da’Monte Williams, who became the cornerstone of the program as Illinois suffered two losing campaigns before Ayo Dosunmu and Cockburn entered campus.
Point guard Wily Andre Curbelo transferred to St. John’s after an injury-plagued year, and marksmanship grad Alfonso Plummer’s transfer is ineligible after hitting 98 3-pointers at a 40.8 clip %.
And Jacob Grandison opted out of returning to Illinois, leaving about 85% of last season’s score to be replaced.
But it helps bring in the nation’s No. 9 recruiting class, according to the 247Sports.com ranking.
Skyy Clark, the top-30 point guard, is the highest-rated rookie to land in Illinois in the modern era.
“There were a lot of things about Illinois that made it the perfect place,” Clark told the Tribune. “It really started with my relationship with Coach Tim (Anderson). I’ve known him since eighth grade; that was my first offer when he was at DePaul.
Underwood exudes confidence.
“We have guys with natural leadership abilities who are ready to thrive in this (leadership) role,” Underwood said. “A guy we just signed (Clark) isn’t afraid of this role. He’s been doing this his whole life. He’s already reaching out and connecting with the guys.
Clark has just recovered from a torn ACL suffered last summer. He initially signed with Kentucky but got a letter of intent release in March before committing to Illinois.
Although Clark has been back in action for months, he said the reputation of Illinois strength and conditioning coach Adam Fletcher – which includes stars such as Cockburn and Dosunmu – was a crucial factor in his decision.
“I met Coach Underwood on the home visit, and what really made it all together was Coach Fletch,” Clark said. “I feel like he’s the best in the world at what he does. Coming off my ACL, I haven’t really been 100% body, like athletics and strength and everything. I believe that this summer he will bring me back to my old self and maybe even better.
Underwood won’t hesitate to throw his new class – arguably his most talented yet – into the fire. At least a few tough matchups await Illini’s new look this November in Las Vegas in the Roman Main Event, an early-season tournament that will feature Baylor, UCLA and Virginia.
“The one thing you know I won’t do is go back on our schedule,” Underwood said on April 20. “We are going to play an elite schedule.”
Clark doesn’t shy away from the high expectations that have surrounded the program in recent years, saying he and his fellow freshmen relish the challenge.
“The thing about us is that we love the wait,” Clark said. “We love the pressure that is put on us and we all know that we are going to work very hard this summer to prove not only to others – and especially to ourselves – that we can really do damage.”
Illinois adds three more top-110 rookies — including star Thornton forward Ty Rodgers — as well as Clark.
“Ty Rodgers is one of my favorite players on the tour,” Underwood said. “He has an impact on winning at the highest level. There’s nothing he can’t do. Physically, he has a body that allows him to be ready and play in several positions.
Combo guard Jayden Epps is North Carolina’s top rookie, hailing from the AAU’s top-tier Combine Academy program, and shooting guard Sencire Harris played at St. Vincent-St. Mary, the Akron, Ohio school where LeBron James burst into national fame.
Clark and Epps could see some serious time as the team’s primary ball handler, while Harris plans to be a solid Power Five guard. Underwood said he wouldn’t be surprised if he finally called a few sets for Rodgers, adding that Rodgers could hold four of five positions on the court.
“I thought he was the best defenseman on the circuit (Nike Elite Youth Basketball League) last summer,” Underwood said. “And I love his passing. We haven’t had that physical size and presence in an elite passer and a guy who can hold multiple positions at 6-6, 6-7.
Clark and Rodgers played AAU together in college at Bates Fundamentals at EYBL. Clark said he hit it off quickly with Epps and Harris during a group chat with the four rookies.
The Nashville, Tennessee native, who played his high school ball at Central Florida’s Montverde Academy, is a proven scorer, distributor and ball handler.
And while it may take some time to adjust to the next level, Clark seems focused on what he needs to do to make a big impact immediately.
“I don’t go out much,” he said. “I’m at the gym or I’m at home with my family. I am a simple man. I like to fish. I love thrift stores.
Chicago native Terrence Shannon Jr. offered the Illini their first high-profile transfer portal addition, announcing his engagement on Friday. The 6-6 wing averaged 10.4 points at Texas Tech last season and has two more years of eligibility.
The Illini sought several talented transfer options, including former DePaul winger David Jones, who chose St. John’s. The Portal has seen virtually non-stop action since the end of the NCAA Tournament, with teams chasing proven players.
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The Illini are hoping former Baylor forward Dain Dainja — who played just nine minutes of college basketball but is a former top-100 prospect — can fit into the frontcourt and provide a skill set valuable and distinctive after Cockburn’s departure.
“Dain has been part of a national championship locker room,” Underwood said.
Forward Coleman Hawkins finished in excellent form after struggling to establish a role in the first half of the season. He averaged 5.9 points and 4.3 rebounds in 19 minutes per game. Wings RJ Melendez and Luke Goode also played well in contributing roles, especially in February and March, and were assets defensively after a few early hiccups.
“The talent level is probably better than it’s ever been,” Underwood said. “I love this track.”
Gavin Good is a freelance writer for the Chicago Tribune.