What's happening with the Illini?

What's happening with the Illini?

1. What is the team doing now?

The bulk of the players' time this spring is spent with strength and conditioning coach Adam Fletcher. He gets six hours per week with the team. The Illinois coaches get just two.

"It's a big time for improvements and a big time for them to get bigger and stronger as Fletch works his magic," Illinois coach Brad Underwood said.

But those two hours the coaching staff works with the players each week are important, too. Typically split into three 40-minute segments working with two or three players at a time, Underwood said the spring is about fundamentals and minimizing weaknesses.

"I'm very much into the numbers part of it," Underwood said, referencing the statistics Synergy churns out about every play every player on the roster was involved in throughout the season.

That's where the Illini found that Kipper Nichols was 22 percent worse shooting layups off one foot compared to two. Or that Trent Frazier finished at 28 percent going right.

"If we know that, so does every opponent," Underwood said. "We try to take those weaknesses and not necessarily make them strengths, but make them so they're not near as prevalent a weakness. It's very fundamental. It's very simple."

2. What should be expected from new uniforms?

The social media graphic Illinois used to introduce its entire 2018 class Wednesday included photos of all six recruits wearing the Flyin' Illini throwbacks. It's a popular look. It's also a sleek look that will influence a jersey change for the 2018-19 season.

"The ones next year will be very similar to what we have right now, but the zig-zag goes away and they're going to go to the slimmer cut," Illinois director of basketball operations Joey Biggs said. "Instead of that zig-zag on our current jerseys there will just be a straight line. They will be neater and cleaner."

The slimmer fit jersey style is one Nike first adopted at the 2016 Rio Olympics that is tighter and doesn't go as wide at the shoulder.

"Some teams have them now, and next year everybody in the country is going to them that's a Nike school," Biggs said. "The shorter, slimmer shorts are part of that, too."

3. How is the schedule shaping up?

Underwood has already said Illinois' 2018-19 slate will be one of the best in the country. Hard to argue when it already includes a loaded Maui Invitational, the Big Ten/ACC Challenge, the Gavitt Tip-off Games, showdowns with Missouri (Braggin' Rights) and UNLV (return game) and the Big Ten's newly expanded 20-game schedule.

That leaves Biggs, who does the Illini's scheduling, with only a few holes to fill with nonconference games.

"I've got one (game) left to get," he said. "It's going to be a series, but we're kind of being selective on what we're going to do with that one. Maybe even wait until we get an idea of what the Gavitt Games might look like. It's been easier this year because I don't see a scenario where strength of schedule will be an issue. ... I think it will be a good schedule for our fans, and they'll be excited about it. And it will be a good gauge for a young team."

4. Will Ayo Dosunmu start the season opener?

The Illinois backcourt will have a new look next season given the departures of Mark Alstork, Mark Smith and Te'Jon Lucas. That's 70 starts and 1,935 total minutes to replace. Odds are the highest-rated member of the Illini's 2018 recruiting class will fill a good portion of that void after showing off his abilities as a scorer (24.5 ppg) and distributor (7.0 apg) during his senior season at Morgan Park.

Even with other ball handlers/scorers on the roster in Frazier and junior college transfer Andres Feliz, there's certainly room for Dosunmu in the Illini backcourt.

"That's why they recruited him so heavily," Rivals national analyst Corey Evans said. "He's a 6-foot-5 guard that can do a variety of things. His best asset is scoring the basketball. Someone is going to have to be a faciliator and playmaker to a degree. I think Ayo can be that, and he'll be given the first chance to do so."

Evans said using Dosunmu that way could be a boon for Illinois on the recruiting front, too.

"They want to make Ayo a precedent," he said. "Come here: you're a five-star, big-time name and we're going to give you the rock."

5. How important will Aaron Jordan be next season?

Illinois was young in 2017-18, and the Illini will be young again in 2018-19 with more freshmen alone than upperclassmen on scholarship. Jordan's the lone senior and the lone four-year player on the roster, and his attitude and effort has made him a critical part of the culture Underwood is trying to instill.

"When you're trying to establish your identity, your culture, he's a big part of it," Underwood said. "He'll be a guy we count on for a much bigger role both on and off the court than this past year.

"He's a guy that teaches our young guys. He had such a tremendous start to the season and he finished the year pretty well. We'll get that consistency, and he'll improve because literally he's one of the hardest working guys we have. That establishes your culture."

6. What's the next step for Trent Frazier?

The 6-foot-1 guard developed from barely used in the Big Ten opener against Northwestern to leading all Big Ten freshmen in scoring, assists, steals and three-pointers made by the end of the season. Underwood was just as impressed with Frazier's improved decision-making ability and a level of defense he wasn't necessarily expecting.

Underwood remains impressed with the Florida native a month into the offseason for his approach at continuing to improve his game.

"He's taken the understanding that he had some weaknesses and how frustrating it was late when people weren't letting him go to his left hand," Underwood said. "He's got a really high celing, and he's a special talent and special young man. I think he had really as good a freshman campaign of anybody in this league."

7. Who is helping shape E.J. Liddell into a top 2019 target?

Liddell is a clear recruiting priority for Illinois in the Class of 2019. He's an elite prospect — ranked as high (for now) as No. 42 in the country — has a versatile skill set and proved his ability to compete by leading Belleville West to a state title while earning News-Gazette Player of the Year and Illinois Mr. Basketball honors. Liddell gives plenty of credit for his success to Belleville West coach Joe Muniz.

"He's really brought out a lot of things I didn't know I could do," Liddell said. "A lot of aggressiveness. He always tells me I'm not always going to be the tallest guy, so I've improved my outside shooting and my conditioning."

Brad Beal Elite coach Corey Frazier, who works Liddell out regularly, has also had a major influence in his growth.

"I get in the gym with Coach Frazier all the time," Liddell said. "He's one of the people I thank the most. He's shown me a lot of different things — how to win and how to play my hardest. He doesn't let me slack off."

8. Which AAU weekend is the one to hit to prospect watch?

The easy drive to central Indiana is the one to make April 27-29 because you get a two-fer. Not only is the Nike EYBL circuit back at the Pacers Athletic Center in Westfield, but the Under Armour Association will play the same days just 15 miles away at Best Choice Fieldhouse in Fishers. It's an opportunity to get eyes on a slew of Illini prospects — especially with Brad Beal Elite (Liddell, Francis Okoro and Mario McKinney) and Mac Irvin Fire (Khalil Whitney and Adam Miller) in the EYBL.

"What Nike has done has literally created a dream for these kids," Brad Beal Elite director Tim Holloway said. "It is the NBA of high school summer basketball. The atmosphere, the media circus, having the coaches there, the crowds and venues and product and support, it is a dream. When we're recruiting and looking for players and having tryouts, these kids understand and parents understand what it means to be on an EYBL team and the opportunity it affords these kids."

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