Fans of the Illinois basketball team may need to keep their programs nearby early in the 2022-23 season.

With several new faces set to make their debut in Champaign, at initial glance it looks like a rebuilding year for head coach Brad Underwood. But a deeper dive into the roster shows that Underwood and his staff may have reloaded instead of rebuilt.

Gone from last year’s co-Big Ten champions are Kofi Cockburn, Alfonso Plummer and Trent Frazier, amongst others. Cockburn was a regular double-double guy and a nightmare for opposing coaches to game plan for. Plummer and Frazier both averaged double figures and were stalwarts in the backcourt.

So, who fills the voids? How will the new guys gel and form a strong chemistry? Let’s take a look at 10 tidbits and preview what looks to be an unknown, yet exciting new season for the Illini.

1) Terrence Shannon Jr. is an A+ portal pickup

Shannon, a Chicago native, comes to Champaign after spending 3 years at Texas Tech, where he averaged 10.4 points last year. Shannon played in 83 games during his time in Lubbock, scoring 915 points while helping lead the Red Raiders to 2 NCAA Tournament appearances.

The 6-6 senior provides instant credibility to a new-look lineup. He’s been there, done that and provides the scoring punch Underwood was looking for in the offseason. A member of the preseason Jerry West Award watch list, Shannon looks to be a perfect fit to fill one of the backcourt spots vacated by Frazier and Plummer.

2) Coleman Hawkins will be a star

Hawkins started 14 games a year ago and got stronger as the season progressed. His 18-point performance against Chattanooga in the 1st round of the NCAA Tournament was a season high.

The 6-10, 225-pound junior is off to a strong start. He posted a double-double with 15 points and 12 rebounds in the Illini’s 87-52 exhibition win over Quincy on Oct. 28.

Hawkins appeared in all 33 games a year ago, and provides veteran experience. Underwood hopes he elevates his game in 2022-23.

3) Injury to Luke Goode something to monitor

Sophomore guard Luke Goode broke his foot recently and will miss a chunk of the season. How much he’ll miss is yet to be determined, but Underwood is hoping to get him back sometime during the conference slate.

“I’m just sick for Luke,” Underwood told reporters recently. “We had him penciled in as a starter.”

Goode is remaining optimistic and is planning on healing up and getting back on the floor.

4) Baylor transfer looks to have immediate impact

Underwood was busy hitting the transfer portal in the offseason. He nabbed Baylor transfer Matthew Mayer, who will play his final season in Champaign.

The 6-9 Mayer started all 33 games a year ago for Baylor, averaging 9.8 points and 5.0 rebounds. The veteran should provide some needed depth in the front court and looks to get more comfortable in his role after a 6-point, 3-rebound performance against Quincy.

5) True freshmen bring exuberance

While the Illini have their share of veterans and older transfers, let’s not forget about a pair of incoming freshmen who look to make marks of their own.

Skyy Clark, from Los Angeles, got the start against Quincy. He played 29 minutes, scoring 11 points and pulling down 4 rebounds. The 4-star recruit out of Montverde Academy won’t shy away from playing under the bright lights of a Power 5 conference.

Underwood loves Sencire Harris’s tenacity. Another 4-star recruit, from Canton, Ohio, Harris sparked the Illini with his defensive intensity in the exhibition win.

“I thought Sincere had a little aggression to him on the defensive side,” Underwood said. “We were very passive, and I thought that was impactful.”

6) RJ Melendez is another reliable veteran body

Melendez finished with 15 points against Quincy. The 6-7 sophomore appeared in 22 games a year ago and had 9 points in the round of 32 game against Houston last March.

His career-high of 14 points came against Northwestern last year. He’s the type of guy who will fill his role well and not try and do too much. A perfect fit in Underwood’s system.

7) Schedule littered with big-name opponents

Never one to shy away from competition, Underwood will once again face a gauntlet in the nonconference portion of the schedule.

Games against UCLA, Baylor or Virginia, Syracuse, Texas and Missouri are on the docket. Newcomers will be tested immediately. But Underwood knows that iron sharpens iron. What good is a nonconference schedule littered with cupcakes? Get the troops battle-tested and ready for the grind of the conference season.

8) Media tab Illini No. 2 in B1G

Even with the loss of most major contributors, Illinois was still tabbed by the media to finish 2nd in the league. It’s a lofty perch for a team replacing 5 starters, but with the guys returning and the newcomers Underwood brought in, anything’s possible.

Indiana was the media’s top choice, with Illinois receiving 6 first-place votes. It may take awhile for the new guys to get used to one another, but once January and February hit, the folks in the press expect Underwood’s crew to be clicking.

And why not? With a mix of veterans and solid newcomers, the vibe in Champaign is upbeat. Underwood’s always had a knack for getting the most out of his teams. 2022-23 shouldn’t be any different.

9) First 3 games provide opportunity for growth

Illinois opens Nov. 7 vs. Eastern Illinois. Games against Kansas City and Monmouth follow. Any early growing pains should be alleviated with the opportunity to iron out kinks against those 3.

After that, a trip to Vegas and games against UCLA and either Baylor or Virginia follow. The No. 23 Illini will find out fairly soon where they stack up against the nation’s best teams.

10) Underwood looks to crack the Round of 32 for first time

It could be a memorable season for Underwood. Illinois has the talent to not only reach the NCAA Tournament, but make noise at the dance. His career record sits at 273-118, but Underwood has never reached the Sweet 16. This season could change that.

If the coach can work his magic and get this group filling roles and playing together, watch out. The talent is there. Can they put it all together and make a deep run? Don’t bet against it.

Season prediction

With so many uncertainties entering the year, who knows where this ends up. But Underwood is one of the nation’s best coaches. He worked the portal to perfection in the offseason. He loves the makeup of his squad.

How it all shakes out will be fun to watch. Illinois can make a run at the conference title if all goes to plan. If not, a middle-of-the-pack finish is in the cards.

I think the media have it tabbed well. Although I’m not sure a 2nd-place finish is where it ends. I see the Illini fighting for a top-4 finish and double bye in the league tournament. It’s a grown-man’s league, and experience and veteran play are a must for success.

Underwood’s pieced together a nice roster. If Goode can return from foot surgery and contribute late in the season, it’s all the better. Depth, especially late in the year, is always a plus.

Illinois is a definite NCAA Tournament team. How far they go is anyone’s guess. But here’s a hunch: they somehow do better and go farther than Underwood’s past Illini teams. Expectations were sky high with Cockburn and Frazier on the roster. They never quite lived up to them.

Maybe, just maybe, this is the year Illinois makes a deep run. With the limelight focused elsewhere, it’s possible this group comes together and takes shape. They certainly have the talent and coaching to make it happen.

I’ll predict an NCAA bid (as a 5-seed) and run to the Sweet 16. Loyal hoops fans in Champaign deserve it. It would be Underwood’s first trip ever to that round. For a coach of his stature, it’s overdue.