Taking a look at local Division I college basketball
By John Lemon
Coach: Brian Wardle (6th year, 81-86)
Last year: 23-11, 11-7 in the MVC
Top players: Elijah Childs (6-8, sr., F); Ja'Shon Henry (6-6, jr., F)
Outlook: Wardle, a Hinsdale Central graduate, has righted the ship in Peoria. The Braves have won 20 games the last three seasons after he started 5-27 and 13-20 in his first two. Bradley capped last year by winning the MVC tournament to punch its ticket to an NCAA Tournament that never ended up happening. Childs averaged 14.8 points and 8.6 rebounds last year. He earned a spot on the MVC's preseason all-conference team. The Braves must replace guards Darrell Brown and Nate Kennell; Brown led last year's team in both scoring and assists. Connor Linke, a 6-foot-9 freshman forward from St. Charles North, joins the team. The MVC switched its scheduling format to reduce travel, an 18-game format in which most MVC teams will face one another in a two-game series on back-to-back days at the same site. Each institution will play four road series and four home series and will also face their designated 'travel partner' in a single-game, home-and-home series. All conference play begins after Christmas.
Coach: Dave Leitao (9th year, 122-132)
Last year: 16-16, 3-15 in the Big East
Top players: Charlie Moore (5-11, sr., G); Jaylen Butz (6-9, sr., F); Javon Freeman-Liberty (6-4, jr., G); Romeo Weems (6-7, so., F)
Outlook: The Blue Demons are one of the schools already dealing with the problems that come with playing basketball during a pandemic, announcing last week they are pausing all team activities following positive COVID-19 test results among their Tier 1 group, and canceling the first three games of the season scheduled for Nov. 25, Nov. 28 and Dec. 1. Leitao could use a winning season with a new AD and Big East records of 3-15, 7-11, 4-14, 2-16 and 3-15 in the five years since returning for his second stint at DePaul. Last year's leading rebounder, Paul Reed (15.1 ppg, 10.7 rpg), left early for the NBA Draft and became the Blue Demons' first selection since 2007 when Philadelphia took him in the second round. Moore, a Morgan Park graduate who started his career at Kansas, averaged 15.5 points and 6.1 assists last year, shooting 37.6% from the field. Butz and Reems will help replace Reed's work on the boards. Butz averaged 10.1 points and 5.4 rebounds; Weems 8 points and 4.9 boards. Freeman-Liberty, whose uncle Marcus Liberty played on the 1989 Flying Illini, transferred from Valparaiso where he averaged 19 points, 6.1 rebounds, 3.2 assists and 2.2 steals last year.
Coach: Brad Underwood (4th year, 47-49)
Last year: 21-10, 13-7 in the Big Ten
Top players: Ayo Dosunmu (6-5, jr., G); Kofi Cockburn (7-0, so., C); Trent Frazier (6-2, sr., G); Da'Monte Williams (6-3, sr., G); Adam Miller (6-3, fr., G); Giorgi Bezhanishvili (6-9, jr., F)
Outlook: It's been awhile since the Illini were predicted in the top eight in the Big Ten, let alone the country. Ranked No. 8 by AP to start the year, Illinois has come a long way in a short time under Underwood. After missing a Big Ten championship by a game last year, the Illini got a big boost when Ayo Dosunmu and Kofi Cockburn withdrew from the NBA Draft. Both made the Big Ten's preseason all-Big Ten team. They averaged team-highs of 16.6 and 13.3 points per game last year. Along with veterans Frazier and Williams, they also provide excellent play on the defensive end. A key to Illinois living up to the lofty expectations is how much it gets from freshmen Adam Miller, Andre Curbelo and Coleman Hawkins plus transfers Jacob Grandison and Austin Hutcherson. That group is being counted on to help one of the few weaknesses on last year's team, 3-point shooting. They shot just 30.9%, last in the Big Ten, with the best shooter Alan Griffin transferring to Syracuse. Frazier (30.9), Dosunmu (29.6) and Williams (28.3) all look to improve. The Illini open the season hosting a multi-team event with games Wednesday, Thursday and Friday against North Carolina A&T, Chicago State and Ohio before the schedule ramps up against No. 2 Baylor and No. 9 Duke.
Coach: Dan Muller (9th year, 149-117)
Last year: 10-21, 5-13 in the MVC
Top players: Keith Fisher III (6-8, F, sr.); DJ Horne (6-1, so., G); Antonio Reeves (so., 6-5, G);
Outlook: As freshmen, guards Horne and Reeves made a quick impact. Horne averaged 8.7 points and 3.1 rebounds; Reeves, a Simeon graduate, was fifth on the team at 7.2 ppg. Fisher led the Redbirds in rebounding (6.0 per game) last year and averaged 9.6 points -- second highest on the squad. He came on strong at the end of the season, averaging 13.5 points and 7.1 rebounds per game over his final 11 games of the year. Freshman guard Jayden Johnson from Batavia joins the program. The Redbirds were picked ninth, ahead of just Evansville, in the preseason MVC poll, which is voted on by coaches, sports information directors and media.
Coach: Porter Moser (10th year, 162-136)
Last year: 21-11, 13-5 in the MVC
Top players: Cam Krutwig (6-9, sr., C); Tate Hall (6-6, sr., G); Keith Clemons (6-1, sr., G); Marquise Kennedy (6-1, so., G); Lucas Williamson (6-4, sr., G)
Outlook: The Ramblers have gone 20-14 and 21-11 the past two seasons since their 2018 Cinderella run to the Final Four. Jacobs graduate Krutwig has been in the middle of all three of those teams, and he enters his senior season already among the best Ramblers ever. A three-time All-Missouri Valley Conference honoree, including a first team pick in each of the last two years, the versatile big man averaged 15.1 points, 8.1 rebounds, 4.2 assists, 1.2 steals and 0.6 blocks per game in 2019-20, shooting 56.3% from the field. Krutwig became the first MVC player to rank in the top five in the league in scoring, rebounding, assists and field goal percentage. His 4.2 assists per contest led all Division I centers. A CoSIDA Academic All-District 5 pick, Krutwig enters the season with 1,384 points and 737 rebounds. He's got talent back around him, too; the top six scorers all return. Hall (12.7) and Clemons (10.4) both scored in double figures last year. Naperville North grad Tom Welch, a sophomore, played in 28 games last year, averaging 1.8 points in 7 minutes. The Ramblers were picked second in the preseason MVC poll, just behind Northern Iowa.
Coach: Mark Montgomery (10th year, 123-163)
Last year: 18-13, 11-7 in the MAC
Top players: Trendon Hankerson (6-2, jr., G); Darius Beane (6-3, jr., G); Tyler Cochran (6-2, so., G)
Outlook: It's going to be a whole new look at how the Huskies try to beat teams. Gone is all-time leading scorer Eugene German and his 20.5 points per game; the next closest Huskie last year averaged 8.9. Montgomery said it will be a committee who replaces German. He's got a trio of guards all capable of taking on bigger roles. Cochran only started 1 of 31 games but contributed 5.5 points and 4.2 rebounds as a freshman -- the top returning rebounder despite standing 6-2. Hankerson sank 41 3-pointers last year on 46.1% shooting, averaging 7.5 points. Beane was right behind at 7.3 ppg and shot 34% on 3s. NIU's roster also includes 6-foot-8 senior Nathan Scott from Neuqua Valley, 6-7 sophomore Keenon Cole from Streamwood and 6-1 sophomore guard Daniel Filippone from Antioch. Scott averaged 3.3 points and 2.6 rebounds last year; Cole 2.3 points and 1.6 rebounds. Over the past five seasons, NIU has recorded 84 wins, the best five-year stretch in Huskies history.
Coach: Chris Collins (8th year, 109-119)
Last year: 8-23, 3-17 in the Big Ten
Top players: Miller Kopp (6-7, jr., F); Boo Buie (6-2, so., G); Ryan Young (6-10, so., C); Pete Nance (6-10, jr., F)
Outlook: The Wildcats looked like they turned a corner in 2017, finally ending their long NCAA Tournament drought with a 24-12 season. Since then they have slumped, failing to hit .500 while going 15-17, 13-19 and 8-23. On the bright side, Collins played an extremely young team last year; four of their top five scorers return. Miller led the team at 13.1 points a game; he also is one of several capable 3-point shooters who sank 65 last year at a 39.6% clip. Buie averaged 10.3 points per game and was second on the team in assists but hopes to improve on a 28.2% from the arc. Young and Nance led the Wildcats on the glass bringing down 6 a game while averaging 9.0 and 8.5 points, respectively. The roster also includes guard Dom Martinelli, a preferred walk-on who set Glenbrook South's all-time scoring mark 2,059 points, and redshirt junior guard Eric Zalewski from Stevenson.
Coach: Bryan Mullins (2nd year, 16-16)
Last year: 16-16, 10-8 in the MVC
Top players: Marcus Domask (6-6, so., F); Lance Jones (6-1, so., G)
Outlook: Returning to his alma mater, Downers Grove South product Mullins found a gem in Domask. The 2019 Wisconsin Mr. Basketball was one of only three freshmen in the country to average 13.5 points, 5 rebounds and 2.5 assists a game. He won MVC Freshman of the Year. Another freshman, Lance Jones from Evanston, started 26 games and averaged 9.3 points and 2.5 assists per game. He scored 28 against Missouri State. Mullins also is excited about next year's class that includes Troy D'Amico from Niles Notre Dame and Mundelein's Scottie Ebube. The Salukis were originally scheduled to play in Louisville's season-opening multi-team event but had to cancel. "There are a lot of things happening over the last six or seven months in this country that you can't control," Mullins said. "The things that happened with the test results, our guys couldn't control it. For our guys it's disappointing, but they understand it."
Coach: Luke Yaklich (1st year)
Last year: 18-17, 10-8 in the Horizon League
Top players: Michael Diggins (6-8, sr. F); Braelen Bridges (6-10, jr., F)
Outlook: The Flames are one of the few teams in the country who changed coaches in the middle of the pandemic, turning to Yaklich to replace Steve McClain (76-93 in five years). Most recently the associate head coach for Shaka Smart at Texas, Yaklich also has been an assistant coach at Michigan and his alma mater Illinois State. All that came after coaching high school basketball in Illinois for 14 years at Sterling, LaSalle-Peru and Joliet West. He'll have to replace the top three scorers from last year's team; Michael Diggins at 9.3 points and 5.0 rebounds is the leading returning scorer. Braelen Bridges, a 6-10 forward from Atlanta, will look to improve on his 8.4 ppg. Zion Griffin, a 6-foot-6 junior forward from Hinsdale South, joins the Flames after transferring from Iowa State. In a preseason poll, the Flames were picked fifth in the 12-team Horizon League. Wright State was predicted to win led by Geneva grad Loudon Love, the preseason player of the year.