CHAMPAIGN — Is there an Illinois roster nearby? Good, you'll need it.
Brad Underwood begins his second season as the head coach of the Illini at 7 p.m. on Thursday when Missouri Valley Conference opponent Evansville comes to the State Farm Center. This iteration of Underwood's Illini includes eight newcomers, six of whom are freshman.
There are a few returning faces. Sophomore Trent Frazier is back and confident on his way to building on a strong freshman season. Kipper Nichols, Aaron Jordan and Da'Monte Williams all return with experience in Underwood's system. They'll try to impart that knowledge on the freshmen: Ayo Dosunmu, Tevian Jones, Alan Griffin, Samba Kane and Giorgi Bezhanishvili; and the newcomers: junior college transfer Andres Feliz and graduate transfer Adonis De La Rosa.
Thursday is the kickstart for the Illini as they navigate a rigorous non-conference schedule that includes Georgetown, the Maui Invitational, Notre Dame, UNLV and Missouri ahead of Big Ten play.
"I think this team will continue to grow," Underwood said. "We’ll be a team that’s better in December than in November and yet we’ve got to have a starting point and we’ve got to find out. We’re going to do that against some of the best teams in the country. It’s not a gradual learning curve. This is a pretty steep learning curve with the schedule.
"This group is up for the challenge and I think we’re excited about that and excited for the opportunity to go play."
In Friday's exhibition win against Illinois Wesleyan, Underwood tinkered with a variety of lineups, including a three-guard lineup that included Dosunmu, a five-star guard from Chicago Morgan Park, Frazier and Feliz. There's a need for creativity with a relative lack of size on the Illini.
“I liked it," Underwood said. "We worked on it quite a bit in practice this week. We’re still trying to clean up the rebounding piece of that a little bit, but there’s a certain effect when Trent’s not on the ball — Trent’s really, really fast — and him running the wing has got to scare some defenses. Dre being downhill and Ayo the same way, I like that from an offensive standpoint and I like it from a defensive standpoint."
Gone are Michael Finke, LeRon Black, Greg Eboigbodin and Matic Vesel, who all played in the post last season. Bezhanishvili figures to be planted into a starting role and Underwood has high marks for his game despite foul trouble he incurred against Wesleyan.
Samba Kane is working up to speed after missing eight weeks in the summer before joining the team, and De La Rosa has just been cleared for contact and is "day-to-day" as he recovers from a torn ACL suffered at Kent State last year.
The three-guard lineup presents problems for opposing teams if the Illini can figure out a way to rebound as an undersized unit.
"We get out in transition and run," Frazier said. "(Dosunmu and Feliz) both did an unbelievable job scoring in transition. Andres did an incredible job. That’s one of the best skills he has is scoring in transition. It’s impossible to guard him in transition. Ayo, with his length, can get to the basket every time.
“The biggest thing playing three guards right now is just rebounding. We have to get rebounds and help the bigger guys out."
Evansville is coming off of a 17-15 season and is under new leadership in former Kentucky star Walter McCarty.
There's a little bit of unknown about the Purple Aces. No player on Evansville's roster averaged more than 6.8 points per game, but the Purple Aces have size. Guards K.J. Riley and Marty Hall are each 6-foot-5, and Evansville has 6-foot-9 center Danius Chatkevicius patrolling the post.
Bezhanishvili will likely draw the task of defensing Chatkevicius. Underwood needs more from Bezhanishvili than the 14 foul-trouble plagued minutes he played against Wesleyan. When he was on the floor, he added a different dynamic to the Illini. He had nine points, connecting on a pair of triples, and four rebounds while giving a deep passing element to the team.
In the first half against Wesleyan, Bezhanishvili drew his first crowd-led chant of the game, diving on the floor and scrapping for a loose ball that resulted in a double-technical.
“He’s definitely mature beyond his years," Jordan said. "We need that from him, especially. Him not letting go of that ball, yeah it resulted in a tech, but his energy and his presence was like: I don’t care who you are, I don’t care if you’re exhibition on Illinois Wesleyan, I’m not letting go of this ball because it’s mine. Him having that attitude out there gives us energy."
There are going to be mistakes on Thursday and as the Illini move forward and mature. Underwood is prepared for that, as long as they're isolated mistakes and don't happen time after time.
"I understand this group is going to do some things that are going to make you scratch your head, and I’m OK with that," Underwood said. "As long as we continue to work in a positive way, I’m fine. We’re going to make mistakes and we’re going to try to eliminate them."