CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Illinois has high expectations for the 2021-22 season and the Associated Press Top 25 preseason poll reflects that.
The Illini are ranked as the No. 11 team in the country in the poll, which was released Monday. They entered last season as the No. 8 team in the nation and have now spent 21 consecutive weeks in the AP Top 25. Illinois ended the 2020-21 campaign ranked No. 2 in the country, which is the second-highest AP ranking in program history.
The landscape of the team has changed quite a bit since last season with the departure of former consensus First Team All-American point guard Ayo Dosunmu and forward Giorgi Bezhanishvili, who are now in the NBA. Former starting guard Adam Miller also transferred to LSU.
“I get it. Ayo was a dominant figure,” coach Brad Underwood said at Big Ten Media Days. “But how those pieces come together, the chemistry, once you start putting the score up, things become a little bit different. Guys have their role identifications, some guys after losses become a little unsettled. I don’t think that’ll be the case with our group.
“We got a lot of very good players, and I’m excited to see that and get that group on the court.”
The Illini still return a strong core, headlined by standout center Kofi Cockburn and dazzling point guard Andre Curbelo. Cockburn was a consensus Second Team All-American last season while Curbelo was the Big Ten Sixth Man of the Year.
Illinois has also added two key players via transfer, 6-foot-1 guard Alfonso Plummer (Utah) and 6-10 forward Omar Payne (Florida). Each player is known for his three-point shooting and shot blocking, respectively.
The Illini will host NAIA St. Francis (Illinois) in an exhibition game Saturday night at State Farm Center.
Curbelo is no longer the breakout freshman who backed up Dosunmu. He’s now being widely considered as one of the top point guards in the country as evidenced by his inclusion on the 2022 Bob Cousy Point Guard of the Year Award watch list.
“I’m not really too worried about being the face of the program (alongside Cockburn) or being this or being that,” Curbelo said at Big Ten Media Days. “I just want to impact my teammates’ lives and how they want to play.”
The 6-1 guard averaged 9.1 points, 4.2 assists and 4.0 rebounds per game last season, and he showed flashes of what he could do as the main ball-handler when Dosunmu — the 2021 Bob Cousy Point of the Year — was sidelined with a broken nose.
In Dosunmu’s absence, Curbelo had a near triple-double with 10 points, 12 rebounds and eight assists in a home win over Nebraska.
Curbelo’s selection to the Cousy watch list is the latest example of national media taking notice of him. He is “a first-team All-America selection by Field of 68’s Jeff Goodman, a third-team All-America pick by College Hoops Today’s Jon Rothstein, and fourth-team All-America choice by ESPN’s Dick Vitale,” per a press release from the team.
Dosunmu is on the Bulls’ 17-man opening night roster, the franchise announced.
The 6-5 guard had an illustrious three-year career at Illinois before being selected by his hometown team with the No. 38 pick in the 2021 NBA Draft.
Dosunmu totaled a combined 25 points, four rebounds, three steals, two blocks and one assist in four preseason games. He shot 11-of-22 from the field, 1-of-3 on three-pointers and 2-of-2 at the free-throw line, and committed five fouls and three turnovers.
Chicago has a strong group of guards, so although Dosunmu is on its opening game roster, it may be tough for him to break into the rotation.
The Bulls begin the regular season Wednesday on the road at Detroit.