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Overwhelmed by the groundswell of basketball opinion, Old Gus was gently led away from the conversation.

His critical viewpoint didn’t fit.

In central Illinois, boundless optimism rules the preseason ... the belief that Brad Underwood’s fifth squad will surpass a team that went 16-4 in the nation’s best conference, won the Big Ten tournament and was ranked No. 2 entering the 2021 NCAA tournament.

Old Gus couldn’t quite comprehend all this.

How could Illinois be improved without Ayo Dosunmu, the school’s only first-team Associated Press All-American and the greatest closer in school history? Furthermore, he doubts that transfers Alfonso Plummer and Omar Payne will be more productive than the departed Adam Miller and Giorgi Bezhanishvili.

Gus also questions whether Da’Monte Williams will shoot 51.5 percent on three-pointers again. Or if Underwood’s defense will meet expectations with Plummer and Andre Curbelo getting so much time on the court.

Replacing Ayo

The fuddy-duddy is a non-believer. He should take up residence in Indiana or Iowa or, worse yet, Michigan. He dares to remind us that sub-.600 free-throw shooters Kofi Cockburn and Payne might not fit in crucial late-game situations.

So my task today is to shatter his argument. You see, it really is within the realm of possibility that this team COULD BE an improvement on last year’s.

First, even with inevitable experimentation early, it wouldn’t take much to top last year’s pre-Christmas showing ... losses to not only NCAA champion Baylor but Missouri (for the third straight year) and Rutgers, and needing Dosunmu’s heroics to escape Ohio’s Bobcats, 77-75.

Repeat, it is a massive step to replace an All-American who averaged 35 minutes, 20.1 points, 6.3 rebounds and handed out 147 assists. When history is written on the Illini turnaround from nine consecutive non-winning Big Ten seasons — 4-14 and 7-13 in Underwood’s first two years — Dosunmu’s name will be in the first paragraph, even if he bowed out with his season-worst game against Loyola Chicago in the second round of the NCAA tournament.

Deep, talented roster

Now comes the viewpoint of the majority.

➜ Illinois has legitimate stars at the two most important positions, center (Cockburn) and point guard (Curbelo). Cockburn presents natural physicality unmatched at this level, and Curbelo possesses ball-handling traits — how did he do that? — so magical that he is forever tempted to try the impossible.

➜ This has been “Curbelo’s team” since Dosunmu sustained a fractured nose in an 81-72 loss at Michigan State last February. From that point, although Curbelo never started, he played 31, 25, 19, 28, 15, 28, 36, 23 and 26 minutes while averaging 12.8 points in that critical span.

➜ The 2021-22 Illini are deep and unusually experienced with support personnel. Plummer will be 24 on Jan. 1. He joins Williams, Trent Frazier, Jacob Grandison and Austin Hutcherson in their fifth collegiate season.

➜ These guards and wings are shooters. Plummer made 11 three-pointers for Utah against Oregon State as a junior, and started 17 of 25 games as a Utah senior last year, closing with 19, 15, 15, 21 and 16 points by shooting 19 for 38 from beyond the arc.

➜ Bezhanishvili wins the popularity poll, but the 6-foot-10 Payne offers more defensive explosiveness. Payne made 15 starts in two seasons at Florida, his 3.8-point average raising questions as to his scoring ability.

➜ While the talk bubbles about Hutcherson, don’t forget Grandison. The 6-6 forward started 16 of the last 17 games, and trained with the Finnish National Team in July. With 6-10 sophomore Coleman Hawkins reportedly improved, there will be a battle for playing time at forward.

Possibilities endless

OK, lots of positives abounding on this squad. But we must also recognize that others, beginning with Gonzaga, are loaded, as well.

Even if you don’t know (Jaden) Ivey from (Zach) Edey, accept that Purdue may be the Big Ten favorite. Michigan has reloaded, Bill Self has Kansas on the upswing, Minnesota transfer Marcus Carr (19.4 points) heads up a Texas powerhouse, emotions are high for Coach K’s last season at Duke, Memphis has high NBA draft prospects ... and on and on.

Point is, with pickings from 1,800 offseason portal visitors, the possibilities are endless. Look for surprises.

Then too, with Illini football again taking fans down a troubled path (Penn State is next), it’s hard to distinguish between “what we believe” and “what we want to believe.”

Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at ltate@news-gazette.com.

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