Brad Underwood's lineup: New — and few — names

Brad Underwood's lineup: New — and few — names

CHAMPAIGN — Illinois men's basketball will have its first official meeting of the summer on Monday. The unofficial start, let's say, to the 2018-19 season with the first official practice not until October.

Players and coaches were still in flux this week. Freshman forward Giorgi Bezhanishvili arrived Tuesday, while Illini coach Brad Underwood headed to Canada to watch freshman guard Ayo Dosunmu play for Team USA in the FIBA Americas U18 Championship.

Dosunmu's run with the U.S. National team will end Saturday. Then the first five-star prospect since Dee Brown to pick Illinois will join the rest of his new teammates on campus.

"They're tied up all this week with classes and orientation and stuff that goes on for newcomers," Underwood said about the newest additions to his roster. "We'll have our first official meeting next Monday night once everybody's here. They're doing physicals, and they do the baseline test for concussion. It's a process before we can get them to the court."

That's what Underwood has been anticipating. Illinois' spring workouts concluded in late April. Six newcomers — five freshmen and junior college transfer guard Andres Feliz — will join what’s now just four returning scholarship players and three returning walk-ons.

“It’s exciting to walk around and see guys with that length and that size on the perimeter and this eagerness that they have,” Underwood said about his newcomers. “They’re dying to get in here. It’s been a breath of fresh air in terms of the excitement level these guys bring. I’m really looking forward to that.

“I get excited, but I’ve got to temper that a little bit. It’s June. You start to put pieces together, and that’s fun to see. I love putting all those pieces together, but we’re obviously very, very excited about this group.”

There are still pieces to add to that puzzle. Illinois’ 2018-19 roster is incomplete. Underwood has mentioned adding another frontcourt player since the spring signing period in April, and that need only intensified when sophomore forward Greg Eboigbodin announced he would transfer last week.

Consequently, Illinois will start its summer workouts with just two forwards on the roster taller than 6-foot-6 in the 6-9 Bezhanishvili and 7-foot fellow freshman Samba Kane. What Underwood has plenty of — and more this season than last — is long-armed wings like Tevian Jones and Alan Griffin.

“I say this all the time: to me, length is more important than height,” Underwood said. “We’ve got guys who can get in those passing lanes and do some things that other guys can’t just simply based on sheer genetics and athleticism. We’ve got a good group in terms of length.”

Dosunmu is part of that long-armed group. He measured at 6-4 with a 6-8 wingspan during the U.S. U18 training camp, and he’s putting his length to good use for Team USA at the FIBA Americas Championship.

“Defensively, I was extremely impressed,” Underwood said about Dosunmu’s early performances in Canada. “His ball pressure — without fouling — was off the chart. His instincts were great. I thought he was a guy, when he was in the game, really changed the makeup of the game and the tempo of the game.

“When you’re a complete player at both ends of the court and your mentality is to help your team win, that’s everything we’re trying to accomplish here. (Team USA coach Bill Self has) obviously seen that with USA Basketball, and it’s something that translates and is the reason he won two state championships (at Morgan Park).”