CHAMPAIGN — Pieces! Talented, workable pieces.
Like a puzzle. Some round, some square, all different.
It now becomes the task of Illini men’s basketball coach Brad Underwood to manage these dissimilar pieces for a positive outcome ... positive to be defined, at a minimum, as 20-plus wins and an NCAA tournament berth.
That’s a huge demand considering that last season’s 12-21 record produced the fewest wins since the ill-fated 8-18 Gene Bartow campaign of 1974-75, and was the UI’s sixth consecutive year outside March Madness consideration.
Reminding fans of the game’s streaky nature, Underwood sat helplessly through Friday night’s first 15 minutes against exhibition foe Lewis University, witnessing a siege of uncommon ineptitude — starting 0 for 7 from the new three-point arc, committing eight turnovers in the first eight minutes and allowing deficits of 14-2, 21-9 and 27-18 before exploding with an 65-23 flourish in an 83-50 romp.
An oddity of Friday’s initial public venture (the official opener is Tuesday night against Nicholls State) is that the two standouts from the Italian trip, Ayo Dosunmu and Alan Griffin, combined for 2 for 13 shooting with six turnovers.
But Underwood’s third edition is blessed with multiple pieces, more guns in case a key member misfires. At the top of that list is 7-foot freshman Kofi Cockburn who, in the midst of a 16-point, 11-rebound double-double, moved more efficiently, shot better from 15 feet and performed in the paint with greater dominance than anyone could have expected.
How that pans out against Purdue’s 7-3 Matt Haarms, Michigan’s 7-1 Jon Teske and other Big Ten behemoths will be evident later. For now, the 1-2 pivot punch of Cockburn and the always expressive Giorgi Bezhanishvili looks highly promising ... even if his new role might detract somewhat from Bezhanishvili’s production.
A team guy
What we saw Friday was Underwood honoring this fall’s best five players with a start, the two bigs joined by a three-guard unit of Andres Feliz, Trent Frazier and Dosunmu.
The promotion of Feliz, a 6-2 driver from the Dominican Republic, was a change from last season when he started just four games. As Underwood sees it, this affects his swinging-door substitution policy which is initiated prior to the first four-minute timeout. A year ago, Feliz offered a playmaking uptick off the bench, and was almost always a key factor down the stretch.
Addressing his game-long sub pattern, Underwood acknowledged: “I’m looking. I’m all over the place right now. There were some things I liked, and some I didn’t. That’s what these early games are for, to work things out. As for Feliz, he was unbelievable on both ends.”
Said Feliz: “I’m a team guy. I’ll do what the coach asks. If I’m in at the end, that’s more important to me than whether I start.”
Things looking up
As this team settles in, the offense will exceed last year’s 70.9 points per game.
The elephant in the room is Underwood’s perimeter-pressuring defense and previous lack of rim protection. Illinois was outrebounded 1,205 to 1,088 last season and permitted 46.3 percent shooting.
By plugging in Cockburn, who played 28 minutes with just one foul versus Lewis, Illinois has added strength in the paint. That’s critical for a team that often left the back door open by overplaying on the perimeter in giving up 75.4 points last year.
Overall, the early arrows are pointing straight up. Compared to last season, this is a more experienced, more complete team facing a less difficult nonconference schedule and engaging in a Big Ten Conference that lost most of its scoring punch.
More will be revealed next weekend when the road games against Grand Canyon and Arizona offer the most difficult challenges of November.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at email@example.com.