Illini freshmen in line for a big role

ROCKFORD, Ill. — After a whirlwind of an offseason that reset the Illinois basketball roster in the most significant way during the last four seasons, the roster-building portion of the Illini offseason appears to be nearing an end.

Illinois landed Terrence Shannon Jr. and Matthew Mayer out of the transfer portal in addition to four freshmen — Skyy Clark, Ty Rodgers, Jayden Epps and Sencire Harris — as a part of an influx of new, talented faces in the program. The Illini still have two open scholarships and all signs point to entering the season with one open spot and using the other to add a front-court piece. That means the keys to the new-look offense will be turned over, in all likelihood, to the freshmen guards: Clark, Epps and Harris.

So what gives the Illinois coaching staff confidence that the freshmen can run the show?

“You look at Wisconsin last year. Who was their point guard? A freshman (Chucky Hepburn),” Illini assistant coach Chester Frazier told Illini Inquirer on Tuesday at the Fighting Illini Tailgate Tour stop in Rockford. “You can win with young guards, man. They’re talented. That’s why it was important we got Terrence and Matt, just having those veteran guys on the wings that have been through it and played a bunch of college games. Those guys are going to grow up fast. They’re going to have some hiccups along the way but they’re talented and they’re good and competitive. That’s the most important thing that physically they can come in and compete.”

All three freshmen guards arrived on campus last month and have been going through voluntary workouts — and Frazier would like to point out that Rodgers, who is playing for Team USA’s U18 national team this month, could be seen as a fourth guard at 6-foot -6 with his skill set. Clark, Epps and Harris are all roommates and have begun building chemistry among each other.

“It’s a new energy. You’re excited. It’s like bringing a new baby home and you want to give it attention and now it’s a bunch of love,” Frazier said. “Those guys have been fun, man. Just being around them. I’m feeding off their energy. They’re excited to get to work. They’re hungry. They’ve got that youthful energy and that’s always fun.”

The freshmen will need to replace lost production from Trent Frazier (out of eligibility), Alfonso Plummer (out of eligibility) and Andre Curbelo (transferred to St. John’s), the three guards who played a majority of the minutes last season. It’s a big ask to turn the keys over to players with a combined zero minutes played in college basketball, but the coaching staff believes in the talent — and versatility of others on the roster — to win out, even if it means bumps in the road .

Clark is the No. 30 player in the Class of 2022, according to the industry-generated composite rankings. Epps is No. 67, Harris is No. 106 and Rodgers, though listed as a power forward, is No. 48.

“I think we’re all going to have our part in it, the maturation part of young guards,” Frazier said. “I’ve been doing this a long time now and it’s a journey for those young guys. They have no idea what’s coming. All of them are super talented but we know college basketball is different. It’s a big adjustment period coming from high school basketball to college basketball.”

Head coach Brad Underwood has seemed to speak with confidence about what appears to be comfort with his guard group. As the Illini were awaiting a decision on star big man Kofi Cockburn — who has since declared for and will remain in the NBA Draft — Underwood laid out the potential options in the transfer portal. Had Cockburn returned to Illinois, the Illini would have tried to find a shooter. After Cockburn announced his intentions to remain in the draft, Underwood pointed to potentially adding a big man to the mix but didn’t agree that the Illini needed a veteran ballhandler.

“I don’t feel bad about our ball-handling,” Underwood said in April. “I don’t feel bad about our decision-making, even though it’s young.”

As Illinois adds to its versatility with players like Shannon, Mayer, Rodgers and even Baylor transfer Dain Dainjathe opportunity for various players to bring the ball up at times exists, though it may not be often.

The coaching staff appears to feel confident that several players could handle the ball, fitting into the versatility aspect they’ve preached while building the roster.

“You have a ton of guys who can handle the basketball for us,” Frazier said. “You signed basically four guards in this class with Ty, Sencire, Jayden and Skyy. Then you have guys like Coleman who could, in a pinch, bring the ball up the court. Dain could even get the ball and bring it up the court. You have guys who could bring the ball up the floor in a pinch if you needed ball handlers. I love the versatility of our group, guys who can play on and off the ball, multi-positional guys.”