Photo courtesy of Michael Glasgow / Illinois Athletics

The Illinois Fighting Illini came in at No. 8 in the AP preseason basketball poll on Monday.

This is something that Illini fans aren’t used to seeing recently. Illinois finished above .500 last year for the first time since the 2016-17 season, finishing 21-10 (13-7 Big Ten). It was on track to make its first NCAA Tournament since 2013 and finished fourth in a stacked Big Ten.

Then COVID-19 hit.

New Territory

This is definitely new territory for the Illini basketball team, recently speaking. Although they were in the preseason rankings all throughout the 1980s and 90s, that hasn’t been the story in recent years.

This is the first time being in the preseason poll since they were ranked No. 13 in 2011, and highest since being No. 5 in 2005. Illinois has been included in the AP preseason poll 17 times throughout its history.

Brad Underwood has Turned This Program Around

At least one of the big hires athletic director Josh Whitman made has worked out. This is hands down the best team since the 2005 national runner-up team.

Illini fans were nervous throughout the summer, waiting to see if Ayo Dosunmu and Kofi Cockburn were returning. Both of them entered the NBA Draft after last season concluded, but ultimately withdrew. This is also a very deep team with the starters likely being Dosumnu, Cockburn, Trent Frazier, Da’Monte Williams, and Giorgi Bezhanishvili.

Some of the newcomers include point guard Andre Curbelo, who was the No. 44 recruit in the country, and guard Adam Miller, who was the No. 33 recruit in the country, according to the 247Sports Composite rankings. After struggling to recruit under previous coaches, Underwood has brought in four top-50 recruits in three years.

After previous coaches couldn’t recruit the city of Chicago, Underwood has been able to keep some of those top recruits in the state. Miller, from Chicago, had offers from Kansas, Arizona, Louisville and other top programs before ultimately committing to the Illini. Dosumnu, also from Chicago, had offers from Connecticut, Florida State, Kansas, Ohio State, and numerous other top programs as well.

The addition of Orlando Antigua as an assistant has helped by leaps and bounds recruiting nationally. He helped with the commitments of Curbelo and Cockburn. Curbelo, who from Puerto Rico played his high school ball in New York, had offers from Miami, Florida, Kansas, Oregon and other schools. Cockburn, from Oak Hill Academy, had numerous offers from top-tier programs including Kansas, Duke, Kentucky, and Indiana to name just a few.

2020-21 Schedule

This season is still up in the air. There has yet to be a Big Ten schedule announced. The only match-up we know for sure will be in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge at No. 9 Duke.

This is a match-up that Illini fans will be watching to see if they can finally compete with the blue bloods. This will be a huge top 10 match-up that will bring Illinois plenty of national attention.

The Illini appear to be competing with Iowa and Wisconsin this season for a Big Ten championship. The Big Ten appears to be the best conference in basketball again, with three teams in the top 10 and seven teams ranked in the top 25. It’s going to be another crazy year throughout the conference.

If we know one thing, Fighting Illini basketball seems to be back.