No Big Ten men’s basketball team has won as many league games the last three seasons as Illinois.
Coach Brad Underwood has resurrected the Illini from Power Five purgatory, compiling a 44-16 record in league play during that span. Illinois capped the run with a shared Big Ten regular-season title before another second-round NCAA Tournament exit in March.
Wins, however, still don’t provide immunity from college basketball’s ever-revolving landscape, in which successful programs still hemorrhage stars who leave early for the NBA or via the transfer portal.
“Came here as a young guy, hadn’t been in a high school All-Star Game, and leaves here as a two-time All-American,” Underwood said. “One of the most celebrated players in our history. His jersey will hang here.”
Gone, too, are fifth-year players Trent Frazier and Da’Monte Williams, who became the lifeblood of the program as Illinois endured two losing campaigns before Ayo Dosunmu and Cockburn stepped on campus.
Wily point guard Andre Curbelo transferred to St. John’s after an injury-plagued year and sharpshooting graduate transfer Alfonso Plummer is out of eligibility after hitting 98 3-pointers on a 40.8% clip.
And Jacob Grandison opted not to return to Illinois, leaving roughly 85% of last season’s scoring needing to be replaced.
But it helps to bring in the No. 7 recruiting class in the country, according to the 247Sports.com rankings.
Top-30 point guard Skyy Clark is the highest-rated recruit to land at Illinois in the modern era.
“There was a lot about Illinois that made it feel like the perfect place,” Clark told the Tribune. “It really started with my relationship with Coach Tim (Anderson). I’ve known him since eighth grade, he was my first offer when he was at DePaul.”
Underwood exudes confidence.
“We’ve got guys with natural leadership abilities who are ready to blossom into that (leadership) role,” Underwood said. “A guy that we just signed (Clark) is not afraid of that role. He’s done that his whole life of him. He’s already reaching out and connecting with guys.”
Clark is coming off an ACL tear from last summer. He initially signed with Kentucky but obtained a release from his letter of intent in March before committing to Illinois.
Although Clark has been back in action for months, he said the reputation of Illinois strength and conditioning coach Adam Fletcher — including bulking up stars such as Cockburn and Dosunmu — was a crucial factor in his decision.
“I met Coach Underwood at the house visit, and what really did it all together was Coach Fletch,” Clark said. “I feel like he’s the best in the world at what he does. Coming off my ACL, I haven’t really been 100% body-wise, like athleticism, strength and everything. I believe this summer he’s going to get me back to my old self and maybe even better.”
Underwood won’t hesitate to throw his new class—arguably his most talented yet—into the fire. At least a couple of challenging matchups await the new-look Illini in Las Vegas in November in the Roman Main Event, an early season tournament that will feature Baylor, UCLA and Virginia.
“The one thing you know I’m not going to do is back off our schedule,” Underwood said April 20. “We’re going to play an elite schedule.”
Clark isn’t backing down from the high expectations that have surrounded the program in recent years, saying he and his fellow freshmen relish the challenge.
“The thing about us is we love the expectation,” Clark said. “We love the pressure that’s being put on us and we all know we’re going to work super hard this summer to prove not only to other people — most importantly, to ourselves — that we can really do some damage.”
Illinois adds three other top-110 recruits — including Thornton star forward Ty Rodgers — this year, along with Clark.
“Ty Rodgers is one of those guys that’s one of my favorite players on the circuit,” Underwood said. “He impacts winning at the highest level. There’s nothing he can’t do. Physically, he’s got a body that allows him to be ready and play multiple positions.”
Combo guard Jayden Epps is the top recruit from North Carolina, hailing from high-profile AAU side Combine Academy, and shooting guard Sencire Harris starred at St. Vincent-St. Mary, the Akron, Ohio, school where LeBron James burst into national fame.
Clark and Epps could see serious time as the team’s primary ball handler, while Harris projects to be a strong Power Five guard. Underwood said he wouldn’t be surprised if he ultimately calls some sets for Rodgers, adding that Rodgers can guard four of the five positions on the court.
“I thought he was the best defender on the (Nike Elite Youth Basketball League) circuit last summer,” Underwood said. “And I just love his passing from him. We haven’t had that physical size and presence in an elite passer and guy who can guard multiple positions at 6 (feet), 6 inches, 6 (feet), 7 (inches).”
Clark and Rodgers played AAU together in middle school at Bates Fundamentals in the EYBL. Clark said that he quickly hit it off with Epps and Harris in a group chat the four recruits made.
The Nashville, Tenn., native, who played his high school ball at Florida powerhouse Montverde Academy, is a proven scorer, distributor and ball handler.
And though it could take some time to adjust to the next level, Clark seems focused on doing what he needs to in order to make a strong impact immediately.
“I don’t really go out much,” Clark said. “I’m at the gym or I’m at home with my family. I’m a simple man. I love fish. I love to thrift shop.”
Chicago native Terrence Shannon Jr. gave the Illini their first high-profile transfer portal addition, announcing his commitment Friday. The 6-6 wing averaged 10.4 points per game at Texas Tech last season and has two years of eligibility remaining.
The Illini sought several talented transfer options, including former DePaul guard David Jones. The portal has been seen virtually nonstop action since the tournament ended, with teams in hot pursuit of proven players.
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The Illini are hopeful former Baylor forward Dain Dainja — who has played just nine minutes of college basketball but is a former top-100 prospect — can slot into the frontcourt and provide a valuable and distinctive skill set after Cockburn’s departure.
“Dain has been part of a national championship locker room,” Underwood said.
Forward Coleman Hawkins finished in excellent form after struggling to establish a role in the first half of the season. He averaged 5.9 points and 4.3 rebounds in 19 minutes per game. Guards RJ Melendez and Luke Goode also played contributing roles well, especially in February and March, and were pluses on the defensive end after some early hiccups.
“The talent level is probably better than it has ever been,” Underwood said. “I love that piece of it.”
Gavin Good is a freelance reporter for the Chicago Tribune.