The old college try: Illinois’ D-I basketball programs are on the rise

Many of Illinois’ D-I basketball programs are full of intrigue and poised to make waves nationally.

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Southern Illinois head coach Bryan Mullins yells from the sideline during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Saint Louis.

Southern Illinois head coach Bryan Mullins yells from the sideline during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Saint Louis.

AP Photos

So much is up in the air with college sports –– all sports –– as we move forward.

The pessimism in the voices of all the college basketball coaches I talk to each day is palpable.

There is concern over the health and safety of the players in their programs. There is the adjustment in their jobs –– from zoom meetings to zoom recruiting to being unable to coach their own. And most of all there is the uneasy feeling of what is to come in terms of the 2020-2021 season. What will it look like? When will it start?

The National Junior College Athletic Association announced last month no games will be played before Jan. 24.

But when (If?) we do get back to playing basketball, there is a lot to look forward to in college basketball and recruiting when it comes to several Division I programs in Illinois. There are some tremendous rosters being built at some of the in-state college programs with recent past success to build on. Don’t forget the positives for these respective programs during this time of uncertainty.

Bradley

If not for the Covid-19 shutdown and the cancellation of the NCAA Tournament, Bradley would have experienced back-to-back NCAA Tournament appearances. Missing out on that March opportunity is an awfully tough pill to swallow for this program.

But repeating as Missouri Valley Conference Tournament champions and NCAA Tournament qualifiers remain a huge selling point to fans, alumni and recruits now and going forward. With three straight 20-plus wins seasons, coach Brian Wardle has revived this program in his five years in Peoria.

The Braves have four players returning, including second-leading scorer and top rebounder Elijah Childs, who played at least 20 minutes a game while also welcoming some potentially high-impact players.

Big things are expected from George Washington transfer Terry Nolan, Jr., a 6-4 guard who averaged 9.1 and 10.6 points as a freshman and sophomore, respectively, while playing in the Atlantic 10. Kevin McAdoo, a 6-2 junior guard, becomes eligible this season after sitting out last year following his transfer from Eastern Michigan. As a sophomore at EMU, McAdoo averaged 8.6 points and knocked down 40 three-pointers.

Bradley also adds talented UMass transfer Sean East, a long, playmaking 6-3 guard who was granted a waiver and will be eligible immediately after averaging 9.3 points and 4.9 assists as a freshman for the Minutemen.

Plus, Wardle and his staff nabbed two players the City/Suburban Hoops Report was extremely high on in the Class of 2020: St. Charles North’s 6-9 Connor Linke and Oak Forest’s long, 6-6 shooting wing Jayson Kent.

Darius Hannah, a versatile, skilled and athletic 6-8 forward out of Milwaukee, is also a part of the Class of 2020.

Thus far in the Class of 2021, the Braves have a commitment from Connor Hickman, a 6-2 combo guard and three-star recruit out of Bloomington, Ind. As a junior he averaged 15 points while shooting 40 percent from three.

So while Bradley did lose leading scorer Darrell Brown and steady Nate Kennell to graduation, the Braves will be in position to remain among the top teams in the Missouri Valley Conference.

Illinois

Sadly the NCAA Tournament drought didn’t officially end last season when Illinois ended the year with 21 wins and firmly in the 68-team bracket; a global pandemic ended the season rather than a postseason loss.

But there is a ton to be excited about for Illinois fans, especially now that Ayo Dosunmu or Kofi Cockburn have made it official they’ll be returning this season.

When you add Dosunmu and Cockburn to the returning mix of players, along with the arrival of a talented and top 20 national recruiting class, the fortunes at Illinois are as high as they’ve been since the Dee Brown days. Coach Brad Underwood could have a top 10 team in the country if all the pieces fall into place.

There is a catalyst in Dosunmu. There is experience up and down the roster. There is depth. And there is young talent on the way.

Highlighted by the guard tandem of Andre Curbelo and Adam Miller, a pair of guards who complement one another so well and were top 50 recruits in the Class of 2020, the recruiting fortunes are on the uptick as well. Illinois already has a commitment from a fringe top 100 player in the Class of 2021 in Luke Goode, a 6-5 shooting guard out of Fort Wayne, Ind.

UIC

A change in scenery always brings life and new hope to a basketball program –– even during a pandemic. That’s where UIC sits with the hiring of Luke Yaklich this past spring as much of the excitement centers around the obvious.

When a new coach arrives, you wipe the slate clean and have something to sell to recruits and your fanbase. As a result, UIC will take advantage of that positive vibe surrounding the program.

Make no mistake about it, the foundation has yet to be laid under Yaklich and his staff. But Yaklich will immediately build around the return of two big men: 6-8 Michael Diggins and 6-10 Braelen Bridges.

There is a trio of transfers returning home as Hinsdale South’s Zion Griffin (Iowa State), Joliet West’s Teyvion Kirk (Colorado State) and Marist’s Maurice Commander (Tennessee-Chattanooga) have transferred back to the area. Yaklich also landed highly-regarded 6-4 guard RayQuawndis Mitchell, a transfer from Otero Junior College where he averaged 15.6 points.

Yaklich may not be able to work miracles in a matter of months, but there is an upbeat feeling surrounding the Flames.

Loyola

The Ramblers have averaged 24 wins a year and gone 40-14 in the Missouri Valley Conference over the past three seasons, including one magical Final Four run in 2018. That right there translates to the most success on the court of any Division I program in the state of Illinois.

And Loyola isn’t done.

Coach Porter Moser has everyone back. That starts with a MVC Player of the Year contender in former Jacobs star Cameron Krutwig, a 6-8 big man who was a first-team All-MVC selection a year ago.

There is a young group ready to take a big step forward, including guard Marquise Kennedy. The former Brother Rice star was named to MVC All-Freshman Team this past season, while 6-6 Tate Hall was named to the All-Newcomer Team. Former Young star Lucas Williamson returns after being named to the All-Defensive Team.

Braden Norris is a 6-0 sophomore guard ready to roll after sitting out last season following his transfer from Oakland. Norris was named to the Horizon League All-Freshman Team and averaged 8.4 points and 5.2 assists while shooting a ridiculous 45 percent from three (76 of 168) in his one season at Oakland.

In addition, Moser has an outstanding guard coming in as a freshman in Baylor Hebb out of Texas. The Texas all-stater averaged 21.9 points as a junior and as a senior put up 23.6 points, 4.2 rebounds and 2.2 assists.

Indiana transfer Damezi Anderson, a 6-7 wing who was once a national four-star recruit, will sit out the 2020-21 season and have two years of eligibility remaining.

Throw in the recent commitments of high-ceiling 6-6 Ben Schwieger of Waubonsie Valley and DePaul Prep guard TY Johnson, a pair of top 10 in-state prospects, and the momentum of a winning culture and success continues under Moser.

Southern Illinois

When you talk about a program where the arrow is pointing straight up, you can start with Southern Illinois.

Coach Bryan Mullins begins his second season after surprising many in his first season on the job. The Salukis were picked in the preseason to finish last in the Missouri Valley Conference and were within one game of the lead late in the season. SIU stumbled in the final couple of weeks and finished fifth overall. But it was as eye-opening as a fifth-place finish could have been.

Plus, Mullins did so without hindering himself while piecing together his first roster in what was a pretty big rebuild. There will be some turnover –– but solid turnover, starting with the return of the league’s Newcomer of the Year in rising sophomore Marcus Domask.

The Salukis welcome several new faces to the program this year with a nice blend of freshmen, transfers and junior college recruits. Keep an eye on potential impacts from Indian Hills Junior College recruit, JD Muila, a 6-8, 240-pound workhorse inside, and Eastern Illinois transfer Ben Harvey, who sat out this past season after averaging 10.2 points was a freshman at EIU.

Now 16 months into leading his alma mater, Mullins and his staff have recently hit it big on the recruiting trail in the Class of 2021. They have secured commitments from Mundelein big man Scottie Ebube and Notre Dame’s Troy D’Amico. Ebube is a top 20 prospect in the class while D’Amico, a versatile 6-7 forward, was a recruiting steal as the City/Suburban Hoops Report’s No. 6 rated prospect in Illinois in the Class of 2021.

The Salukis also have a commitment from 6-5 wing Foster Wonders out of Iron Mountain, Mich., who had a slew of mid-major offers to choose from.

Western Illinois

Coach Rob Jeter and his staff have grabbed headlines. Yes, it’s true, Western Illinois basketball has been in basketball headlines.

There is excitement surrounding the program.

Jeter was hired in late March and has a solid résumé that bodes well for the fortunes of WIU basketball. The veteran coach had five 20-win teams as a head coach at UW-Milwaukee and took two teams to the NCAA Tournament.

He filled out his staff, which included the hiring of Morgan Park coach Nick Irvin as an assistant in May. What followed was a string of recruits committing that’s very atypical of Western Illinois –– or any program in the Summit League.

A pair of top 10 prospects in the Class of 2020 in Illinois, Curie’s Ramean Hinton and Morgan Park’s Marcus Watson, signed with the Leathernecks. Tamell Pearson, a 6-9 big mobile and athletic big man who prepped at Morgan Park, transferred from UAB.

While there is a lot that still needs to come together in the rebuilding of the Western Illinois program, there is no denying the potential high-level impact that’s coming to Macomb.

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