Asked & Answered

Asked & Answered

Illinois wasn't immune to firings and hirings for the second straight year, but a decrease in off-the-court/field incidents was likely a welcome change in 2016-17. Our staff tackles 10 questions for the Illini moving forward to 2017-18:

Which new basketball coach makes the NCAA tournament first?

Brad Underwood, easily. He's already started to reshape the Illinois roster to his liking, and landing Mark Smith was an early recruiting coup. New women's coach Nancy Fahey has a much steeper hill to climb after consecutive nine-win seasons and less success in the program's history.

Was it right to extend Dan Hartleb?

Yes. Illinois risked losing him if it didn't. The Illini baseball coach turned a 50-win season and Super Regional appearance in 2015 into a five-year contract extension through 2020 and a raise to $290,000 with a $20,000-per-year retention bonus paid at the end of the deal included. Hartleb's last two (young) teams have won 51 games combined. A stronger finish this past spring, though, bodes well for the 2018 and 2019 seasons.

Is the Lovie Smith experiment working?

Still too early to tell. Preseason magazine projections have the Illini pegged as one of the worst teams in the country, and in-state recruiting for 2018 isn't matching 2017. So far. Football rebuilds are a longer process than basketball, and Illinois is trying to rebuild off a rebuild. But the Illini have to show they can at least compete this fall, win or lose.

Is hockey really going to happen at Illinois?

A qualified no. The feasibility study being undertaken is going to show that hockey at Illinois is only feasible if a private donor — or donors — show up with a dump truck full of cash. Illinois needs its hockey version of Shahid Khan. That's how Illini hockey happens.

Is it time for a raise for Josh Whitman?

Give it another year. The former Illini tight end signed a five-year deal worth $3 million in base salary in February 2016. Since, he's had to hire five new coaches — hitching his wagon, as it were, to Lovie Smith and Brad Underwood — while also setting Illinois on its next major facility project with a football performance center. Interest in Illinois is higher, but "#WeWillWin" is still a work in progress.

Who's the Illini coach to follow on Twitter?

Chris Tamas in a landslide victory. Easily the most active of the Illinois coaches on social media, the new volleyball coach interacts with fans and isn't afraid to bust out a chuckle-worty GIF for any occasion.

What's the latest on Nike?

Time for a (partial) new look. The 2014 rebrand was mostly fine. Clean updates all around for football, baseball, soccer, volleyball, etc. The big swing-and-a-miss, though, was in men's basketball. When fans openly support wearing the Flyin' Illini era throwbacks for every game, there's clearly not a buy-in for the rebrand.

Which teams end up on the Illinois basketball schedule?

Depends on which coach finalized it. Known opponents include Wake Forest, UNLV, Missouri, DePaul and New Mexico State. Underwood said soon after he was hired he prefers a tougher schedule if given the opportunity. If getting fans back in State Farm Center is the goal, the fewer 250-plus RPI teams the better.

Will Illinois sell out Memorial Stadium this season?

Outlook isn't good. Last year's lone sellout, the first since 2011, was the perfect storm: a night game, early in Lovie Smith's first season and against North Carolina. Even then, some freebies helped fill the place. The best shot — Nebraska in the Big Ten opener — takes a hit because it's a Friday night game.

What facility gets upgraded next?

Illinois Field. It's not a coincidence that when Illinois was named as an NCAA regional host in 2015, the photo used on Twitter was the only one of 16 not showing an aerial stadium view. That 2015 season proved Illinois Field can hit an expanded capacity. Follow the path: renovated stadium to recruiting advantage to more contending teams.