'I think these guys are capable'

‘I think these guys are capable’

Brad Underwood certainly will add to his 2022-23 roster in the coming weeks and months. The Illinois head coach said earlier this month that his program is in the transfer market for every position. His staff long showing interest in veteran backcourt help and some length and shooting on the perimeter, while the need for another frontcourt option grew significantly with two-time All-American center Kofi Cockburn entering the NBA Draft last week.

  • But Underwood currently has 10 players already slated for next season’s roster, including four freshmen who form the No. 8 recruiting class in the country: skyy clark (No. 27 Composite), Jayden Epps (No. 71), Ty Rodgers (No. 54) and Sencire Harris (No. 102). The roster still could change, of course, with seniors Jacob Grandison and Austin Hutcherson both having a potential sixth year of eligibility and players having until Sunday to enter the transfer portal to have immediate eligibility for next season.

So Underwood is not only counting on new additions but his six holdovers to take on far bigger roles — especially his higher-ceiling players who could take a significant step forward like junior forward Coleman Hawkins and sophomores RJ Melendez and Luke Goode as well as Baylor transfer Dain Dainja.

  • Barring Grandison’s decision, Coleman Hawkins could be the only Illini returning who made more than five starts last season. The 6-foot-10 forward averaged 5.9 points (on 44.2% shooting), 4.3 rebounds, 1.5 assists, 0.8 steals and 0.5 blocks. But he was one of the most impactful Illini on both ends of the court late in the season, averaging 8.9 points, 5.3 rebounds and 1.6 assists during his final seven games. Hawkins gives the Illini versatility on both ends of the court as a player who can shoot threes but also convert highlight dunks at the rim or guard wings on the perimeter and swat shots at the rim.
  • RJ Melendez last season showed as much star potential — albeit in small flashes — as any of the Illini returners. The long, athletic, skilled 6-foot-7 wing only played in 22 games last season, averaging 3.8 points and 1.7 rebounds. But he shined late in the season — interrupted by missing a few games with appendicitis — scoring eight or more points in four of his last seven games, including 14 vs. Northwestern, 10 vs. Rutgers and 9 in the Illini’s NCAA Tournament loss to Houston. Melendez shot 56.9% from the field, 60.0% from three and 85.0% from the free-throw line in a small sample, and he projects as one of the Illini’s go-to scoring options.
  • Luke Goode played more than Melendez over the course of the season, though his role was smaller at the end of the season. Still, Goode showed the length, a skill set and reliability that could make him a key role player for the rest of his Illini career. Though he can’t really create for himself, Goode at 6-foot-7 is a long and strong 3-point shooter (37.2%) who attacks the glass (1.8 rebounds in 8.9 minutes). Goode also is a smart, tough team defender, which makes up for a lack of physical gifts on that end.
  • Dain Dainja is a former top-100 prospect who played just nine minutes over two seasons at Baylor, but the 6-foot-9, 270-pound transfer post likely is Cockburn’s successor at the five. He has reshaped his body in the four months he’s been at Illinois, and he has the offensive skill set — shooting, dribbling, passing — to help open up the Illini offense, and Underwood said Dainja has quick feet, which could help them be more versatile on that end. Of course, it’s all theoretical given Dainja’s lack of college experience.

Underwood told Illini Inquirer of preparing those players for significantly bigger, starring roles: “Really hard summer, really hard spring and really hard summer. Those guys are dialed in. We’ve had as good of a three-week period right now … I’m elated with it. Their work, it’s getting better. It’s taking individual weaknesses — that’s one thing we have hard conversations with our guys about — and get those things better. If I didn’t think they were capable of handling the ascension up the scouting report, we would go to the portal and try to find other guys. But I think these guys are capable. We loved them when we signed them and they had moments this year where they’ve shown they can play.”

After losing Cockburn and at least three fifth-year seniors, Underwood also needs those players to step up as leaders. And he said he may look to a freshman lead guard to take on a leadership role immediately.

  • Underwood told Illini Inquirer: “I think you start looking at Coleman, I think you start looking at guys like Luke Goode, RJ. I think Dain has been part of a national championship locker room. I think we got guys with natural leadership abilities that are ready to blossom into that role. A guy that we just signed [Skyy Clark] is not afraid of that role. He’s done that his whole life. He’s already reaching out and connecting with guys. We’ll see how it all evolves once we get the group together here in the summer. It kind of happens organically, which sometimes is the best way to have that.”

Bottom line: This is a huge roster reset for Illinois, one that could lead to early struggles against a tough non-conference schedule next season, which includes the Roman Main Event in Las Vegas where Illinois will play two of Virginia, Baylor and UCLA. But the Illini have lots of talent—it’s just unproven.

  • Underwood said: “We’re no different than just about everybody else in the country. The portal’s creating all of that. I think you try to stay old. We were an older basketball team this year. We knew exactly what we had. We don’t necessarily have that from a game experience. But the talent level is probably better than it’s ever been. I love that piece of it. Seeing young guys mold themselves from good players to great players is what I enjoy the most. I’m looking forward to this group, and we’ll see what the final roster looks like. But staying old is a hard thing to do. Any time you lose guys, you replace them you feel comfortable with, and we’ve done that.”

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