After abrupt end to 2020 season, Illinois and NIU try to sustain momentum
Not that there ever was a good time for a worldwide pandemic to shut down the sports world, but the timing couldn't have been worse for college basketball programs in early March -- including a couple from Illinois.
Led by the school's all-time leading scorer Eugene German, Northern Illinois was headed to the 2020 MAC Tournament as MAC West champions and a chance at its first NCAA Tournament bid since 1996.
The Huskies never played a game in the tournament, instead seeing their 18-win season halted. That's the second most games they have won under 10th-year coach Mark Montgomery.
Northern Illinois returns to the court Wednesday when it opens the 2020-21 college basketball season hosting UIC.
"I'm excited," Montgomery said. "(Last year) got taken away from us; we were ready to win the tournament. I felt we had one of the best players, best teams that can do it. Hopefully this year we get to finish it."
The Huskies will have to do it without German and his 2,203 career points. Montgomery said it will take a committee to fill his shoes.
Guards Trendon Hankerson and Darius Beane are the leading returning scorers at 7.5 and 7.3 points per game, respectively.
Northern is playing Iowa and DePaul as part of a five-game nonconference schedule before embarking on its 20-game MAC slate. The MAC is doing away with East and West divisions this year, and only the top eight will make the conference tournament. The preseason coaches poll picked NIU 10th.
"We're definitely looking to build off last season's success," said Montgomery, whose team changed various roommates to guard against COVID outbreaks and is living by the motto, "stay positive, test negative."
Illinois also saw a promising 2020 season end prematurely. The Illini were a day away from starting play in the Big Ten Tournament as the No. 4 seed after earning a double-bye.
Unlike Northern Illinois having to replace German, the Illini bring back many of their key players from their 21-10 team that finished 21st in the final AP poll. That's raised expectations in Champaign to levels not seen in 15 years.
Maybe no team in the country got a bigger boost from players pulling out of the NBA Draft than Illinois, welcoming back 6-foot-5 junior guard Ayo Dosunmu and 7-foot sophomore center Kofi Cockburn.
Dosunmu was voted to the AP Preseason All-America Team after averaging 16.6 points, 4.3 rebounds and 3.3 assists last season, earning first team All-Big Ten honors while making clutch late-game shots in road wins at Wisconsin, Michigan, Purdue and Penn State. He's the first Illini to be voted an AP preseason All-American since Dee Brown in 2005.
Cockburn, last year's Big Ten Freshman of the Year, averaged 13.3 points and 8.8 rebounds. He set an Illini freshman rebounding record and shot 53.2% from the field.
Senior guards Trent Frazier and Da'Monte Williams return, both lockdown defenders hoping to improve their 3-point shooting. Giorgi Bezhanishvili, a 6-10 junior who struggled much of his first season playing with Cockburn, averaged 12.5 points as a freshman.
Illinois did graduate fan favorite Andres Feliz, a bulldog of a guard, and sharpshooter Alan Griffin transferred to Syracuse. They will try to replace them with a pair of highly regarded freshmen: Adam Miller, last year's Illinois Mr. Basketball and a high school teammate of Dosunmu's at Morgan Park, and Andre Curbelo. Coleman Hawkins is a third freshman looking to contribute while the roles of transfers Jacob Grandison and Austin Hutcherson remain to be seen.
Illinois opens the season at No. 8 in the AP Top 25, its highest preseason ranking since No. 5 in 2004-05.
It marks the first time Illinois enters a season ranked since 2010-11 (No. 13) -- a sign third-year coach Brad Underwood has the arrow pointed in the right direction after one of the worst 10-year stretches in program history.
The Illini play No. 2 Baylor and No. 9 Duke in the preseason before another grueling Big Ten schedule that includes a league-record seven teams ranked in the preseason Top 25, three in the Top 10.