17-18 Season Preview: Illinois

Let's try this again.

Starting with Bill Self's first team in 2000, and through Bruce Weber's third season that ended in 2006, the Illini won at least 25 games every single season. For some perspective, Purdue is the only Big Ten team in the midst of such a multi-year streak, and last year was just the 2nd. Tom Izzo would have reached the 6-year mark had the Spartans won 25 games last year, but they came up short.

Put simply, the Illini in the early part of the century was dominant within the conference, with the pinnacle season coming in 2005. Although they did not win the national championship—with apologies to Frank Kaminsky and the Gang—there has not been a better Big Ten team since.

All of this is to say it can go away very quickly. Illinois just graduated a senior class that never went dancing, and the team has not finished above .500 in conference play in seven seasons. That means the mediocrity well predates former coach John Groce, who came in with a lot of positivity but also a middling record compiled at Ohio University.

That didn't work out so well, so now the Illini have brought in Brad Underwood, who brings a temperament that's more Bob Huggins than Stuart Smalley, but also an impressive resume. Underwood has only been a head coach for four seasons, but he's also been to the NCAA Tournament four times. Before his single season at Oklahoma State, Underwood went 53-1 in Southland Conference play, with the sole blemish being a Valentine's Day loss in 2015, an event that I suspect has led to the cancellation of the holiday in the Underwood household.

But more impressive might have been the fact that Underwood molded the Lumberjacks into a kenpom top-50 team by the time he was done. For some perspective, this is a conference generally filled with the 200+ division. The ability to take low-major talent and "coach 'em up" to a respectable major conference level will be needed this season. No Big Ten lost more minutes from last year than the Illini, and that's usually not welcome news (the annual pilgrimage of 5-star talents to Lexington, Kentucky, notwithstanding). That's especially bad for a team that finished below .500, again.

As such, the Illini of this season will look very different, and not just because there's a new coach running his new system. Wright State transfer Mark Alstork figures to be the offensive focal point, but he's already shown where his limits are. Last season, he consumed over one-third of the possessions while on the floor, and at times it wasn't pretty (such as against Penn State, when it took Alstork 18 attempts to score 15 points, which were paired with 7 turnovers).

If Alstork and the Illini are going to be effective, it's going to be incumbent on freshmen (spearheaded by Mr. Basketball in the state, Mark Smith) and returnees to shoulder enough of the scoring load to allow Alstork to be something other than a relentless chucker.

Even so, it's hard to see how this roster could rapidly improve to become an NCAA Tournament team this year. But hey, maybe this time the Illini hired the right coach.