Northwestern and Loyola are on the rise; Illinois just brought in a great recruiting class; Illinois State narrowly missed the 2015 NCAA Tournament; and UIC and DePaul have found new hope after offseason coaching changes.
As a whole, this is the best basketball has been in the state of Illinois for a while. Here is how The Catch and Shoot ranks the state’s 13 teams.
If Illinois can get healthy, it is the best team in the state. The Illini have a deep backcourt with a pair of talented scorers in juniors Malcolm Hill and Kendrick Nunn. Former Charlotte big man Mike Thorne Jr., a 6-foot-11 center, will be one of the most impactful transfers in the nation.
For the first time since Chris Collins took over as head coach at Northwestern, the Wildcats have a realistic, though improbable, shot at reaching their first-ever NCAA Tournament. The Wildcats return four starters and get deeper on the front line with Virginia Tech transfer Joey van Zegeren and freshman Aaron Falzon.
Loyola is a close third behind Northwestern. The Ramblers return four starters after winning 24 games and the CBI title last season. Junior guard Milton Doyle could make a good case for the best player in the state.
4. Illinois State
The combination of junior Paris Lee at point guard and senior DeVaughn Akoon-Purcell on the wing will befuddle plenty of defenses this season. The big question for the Redbirds is if they’ll have the necessary depth, particularly in the frontcourt, to challenge for their first NCAA Tournament bid since 1998.
Coach Dave Leitao has already succeeded once at DePaul, although it was over a decade ago and the Blue Demons were in Conference USA. But the former regime left behind a solid amount of talent in point guard Billy Garrett Jr. and forwards Myke Henry and Tommy Hamilton IV.
The Blue Demons likely won’t finish higher than No. 8 in the Big East, but they may turn some heads along the way.
6. Northern Illinois
Northern Illinois returns three of its top five scorers and brings a pair of three-star recruits, Jaylen Key and Marshawn Wilson, into the mix. The Huskies finished strong last year and look poised for their first winning season since 2005-06.
7. Southern Illinois
Southern Illinois returns an electric scorer in senior guard Anthony Beane, and it adds another in junior college transfer Mike Rodriguez. This duo will certainly cause trouble for opponents this season. The question is how much help the rest of the Salukis provide.
Sophomore center Tai Odiase is on his way to becoming one of the best mid-major big men on the defensive side of the ball. He leads a frontcourt that also includes highly regarded recruits Dikembe Dixson and Julian Torres.
Also keep an eye out for freshman guard and Chicago native Dominique Matthews, who could be one of the Flames top scorers in his first year.
9. Eastern Illinois
It’s worth checking out an Eastern Illinois game either in person or on television just to watch the backcourt tandem of senior Trae Anderson and sophomore Cornell Johnston go to work. However, the Panthers don’t have much else.
10 freshmen. A few of them are pretty good, but it’s going to be at least a year or two before coach Brian Wardle makes any waves in the Valley.
11. Western Illinois
Western Illinois lost its final nine games last season, but the Leathernecks have an opportunity to improve with eight of their top nine scorers returning.
12. Chicago State
The Cougars will have trouble avoiding the WAC’s cellar for the second straight season. 6-foot-5 hybrid Trayvon Palmer will be the team’s best player, and Bethune-Cookman transfer Clemmye Owens V will give the Cougars a solid secondary scoring option.
SIU-Edwardsville had its first-ever .500 season in the Ohio Valley but then lost its top five scorers. With a new coach as well, the Cougars are back in rebuilding mode.