Richey | Can the Illini get old again?

Apr. 3—CHAMPAIGN — Brad Underwood set out last spring with a roster-building plan in mind. The Illinois men's basketball coach wanted to get old, with the experiences of the 2022-23 season obviously still fresh.

That Illinois team wasn't exactly devoid of experience, but six freshmen were apparently too many. That two of them left before the season was even complete probably made the case for Underwood that pursuing an older team was in his best interest.

So Illinois got old for the 2023-24 season. Underwood's foray into the transfer portal helped him piece together his oldest, most experienced team since arriving in Champaign in March 2017. Ty Rodgers was the lone outlier as a sophomore in a primary rotation that included three graduate transfers, a fifth-year senior, a senior, a redshirt junior and a junior (who earned a business degree in three years).

The result? A 29-9 season. A Big Ten tournament title. An Elite Eight appearance. One of the best seasons in program history.

And now Underwood has to do it all over again.

The downside of getting old so quickly? Those guys aren't typically around for more than a single season. Two at the most. From that eight-man rotation Underwood used for most of the season, only Rodgers and Luke Goode are set to return.

Terrence Shannon Jr., Quincy Guerrier and Justin Harmon have officially run out of eligibility. The idea of Marcus Domask getting a medical hardship waiver and a sixth season exists, but it's a weak case. The 10 games he played in the 2020-21 season at Southern Illinois accounted for nearly 40 percent of the Salukis' total. Past the 30 percent barrier the NCAA sets. You can also easily envision the NCAA telling Domask and Illinois he already got that season back with his COVID bonus year in Champaign. In short, don't count on it.

Coleman Hawkins has that bonus year to use, too, but the longest-tenured Illini seemed set in his decision when he announced he'd played his final game in orange and blue immediately after the Elite Eight loss to Connecticut this past Saturday night in Boston. Dain Dainja, who entered the transfer portal Monday, has chosen to play his bonus season elsewhere.

It's not so much that Illinois has to replace six players this offseason. That's basically become the norm in the transfer portal era. And it's not just the production lost with that group not returning — even if 81 percent of the points scored, 65 percent of the rebounds secured, 75 percent of the assists handed out, 79 percent of the steals swiped and 83 percent of the shots blocked are leaving with them.

It's which players Underwood and Co. have to replace.

As in, the two players through which the entire offense ran. Illinois finished its season with the No. 4 offense in the country because it found a way to mesh Shannon's straight-line drives with Domask's "booty-ball" efforts. Finding one-for-one matches in the portal for a pair of First Team All-Big Ten selections won't be some simple task.

Neither will be piecing together a roster that worked as well as this past season's did. Fit isn't just about basketball skill and ability. The 2023-24 Illinois roster worked because there were individual sacrifices made in order to further team success.

Like Dainja's minutes getting cut in half without the now backup big man gumming up the works in disappointment. Or Hawkins playing out of position because five-out worked for this team better than four-out, one-in. Or Guerrier shifting his entire focus to defense and rebounding with the occasional spot-up three. Or Harmon giving up being the guy at Utah Valley to be a guy at Illinois.

Getting old worked because Underwood found the right old guys. Now, he has to try and strike portal gold for a second straight offseason because building off this past season's successes means getting old again.