Illinois, having stumbled through a pair of sub .500 seasons under Brad Underwood and showing real improvement before COVID wiped out the 2020 NCAA Tournament, had its break-through season in 2021. The Illini finished the regular season on an 11-1 roll, won the Big Ten Tournament, and earned a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. They were ranked No. 2 in the nation, and were considered, other than Gonzaga, perhaps the most likely team to grab the NCAA crown.

And then, the Illini lost in the second round of the NCAA Tournament to home-state rival Loyola-Chicago. Two assistant coaches left, star Ayo Dosunmu headed to the NBA, and the grind that is the Big Ten rolled on.

But the Illini have much more to celebrate than to worry about. They open the season ranked No. 11 overall, third best in the Big Ten, and after sweating out the possible NBA or transfer loss of big man Kofi Cockburn, the Illini have enough outstanding personnel to repeat their excellent regular season … and hopefully, make a nice run in March as well.

Best player

Cockburn. Now the preseason Big Ten Player of the Year, the massive big man averaged 17.7 points and 9.5 rebounds per game last year. Capable of dominating any big man in the nation, Cockburn finished his season getting outplayed by unheralded big guys from Loyola-Chicago. Once his consideration of an NBA jump (or a rumored transfer to Kentucky) fizzled, Illinois knew they had a massive weapon.

A dominant inside scorer, rebounder and defender, Cockburn won’t handle the ball or shoot perimeter jumpers. But he’ll do pretty much anything else.

Biggest strength

Experience. With so many new players and transfers all over the place, few teams can rely on a deep and talented returning corps of stars who have been through the conference grind and even won a conference tournament. Illinois, though, is likely to start 3 seniors, a junior and a sophomore. They even added another pair of veterans with transfers Alfonso Plummer from Utah and Omar Payne from Florida.

Of course, having a standout veteran like Cockburn means not only do they have an experienced team, but they have a good one. Most 7-foot centers who match Cockburn’s physical and statistical profile don’t stay in college for 3 years. But he has, and the cherry on the ice cream sundae of experience is when the centerpiece of your team is experienced and outstanding — few other teams in the nation, much less the conference, can compete with that.

Biggest weakness

Finishing, of course. All of that experience from last season is wonderful … except the experience of folding like a cheap tortilla in the 2nd round of the Big Dance. Illinois hasn’t made it past the round of 32 since 2005’s trip to the national title game. Most of the players on this team were too young to remember that. As meaningful as it is to have a wealth of experience, until Illinois gets over the hump in March, there will be people who are skeptical about them doing so.

There will be some growing pains in reorienting after the loss of Dosunmu and starting guard Adam Miller. Many of the experienced guys were component parts, and a couple now will have to become starters … or maybe the transfers can help, or a decent class of freshmen. But figuring out who the perimeter complement to Cockburn will be is pivotal, and the question is still pretty open at the moment.

Key to the season

Re-crafting this from Dosunmu’s team with some assistance from Cockburn to Cockburn’s team with some assistance from … well, whoever it is. As good as Illinois was, Dosunmu was a massive part of everything it did. He won’t be replaced by one guy. Think of the scene in Moneyball¬†when Brad Pitt says he can’t replace Jason Giambi … but he can replace him in the aggregate.

Somebody has to pick up the slack as a playmaker, somebody as a strident defender, somebody as a big-time shot taker (and maker). That could be the same guy, or more likely, it can be a combination of several guys. The good news is that there’s no shortage of possibilities.

Scouting the backcourt

Start with 5th-year senior Trent Frazier, who scored 10.2 points per game last year and has 1,434 points in his Illinois career. He’s capable of handling the ball enough to help out at the point, but is a solid entrenched starter as the shooting guard. Second-year point guard Andre Curbelo averaged 9.1 points, 4.2 assists and 4.0 rebounds in a bench role. He’ll get the first crack at leading the offense.

The Utah transfer, Plummer, should see key minutes as well. He scored 13.6 points per game last year, and is solid from trey (38.3%) and the foul line (82.4%). It’s not clear how well he’ll defend, but he can help out as a scorer off the bench, if nothing else. A trio of freshman wings (Luke Goode, Ramses Melendez, and Brandin Podziemski) will likely get shots to contribute as well.

Scouting the frontcourt

Cockburn is the man in the middle, no doubts there. The other starters are returnees Coleman Hawkins and Jacob Grandison. A thin 6-foot-10 forward, Hawkins scored just 1.4 points per game last year, but he shows signs of developing nice inside skills to go with a solid outside scoring touch. He can start or the Illini may go small with veteran Da’Monte Williams, who is a solid 5th-year player, as a third guard.

Grandison is a 6-foot-6 wing who starred at Holy Cross before transferring to Illinois for the 2019-20 season. Last year, the part-time starter averaged 4.6 points and 3.4 rebounds. As tough as Cockburn is inside, the Illini could shift Grandison to a de-facto power forward role and let three guards play.

Omar Payne and Brandon Lieb will add some depth inside.

Predicting how far they’ll go in March

This Illini team is capable of contending for the Big Ten, but there are teams with fewer questions. They seem more likely to finish 2nd or 3rd than to win the conference in the regular season. Look for them to get beyond the round of 32 this March, with a run to the Sweet 16 and even perhaps the Elite 8. A Final Four? Maybe that waits another year or two, but this team will recreate some of the better parts of last season, and write a better ending.