The Illini have taken care of business so far on the court with a 3-0 start after games against Eastern Illinois, Kansas City and Monmouth. All of the wins have been by 30+ points and have been a good opportunity to get everyone on the roster some valuable playing time.
But the schedule now picks up in intensity with matchups against UCLA and Baylor or Virigina in Vegas this weekend. Let’s take a look at some of the good things we’ve seen so far this season and some areas of concern.
Terrence Shannon Jr.
Shannon has been as good as advertised in the start of his Illini career. He’s been stuffing the stat sheet with two games of 20+ points & 8 rebounds while shooting an efficient 53% from the field. It’s early, but if Shannon can keep up production near this level he gives Illinois the go-to 3-level scorer we missed without Ayo last year. Big Ten games are always tight and the Illini need a guy that can go get his own shot in the clutch.
One of the concerns coming into this season was if there would be enough production coming off the bench with all of the new, young talent on the team. While the sample size may be small, Dain Dainja and Jayden Epps have stepped up to produce at a high level so far.
Dainja has been feasting in the paint, almost averaging a double with 17.3 points and 9.7 rebounds per game at a highly efficient 83% from the field. He’s also been setting solid screens and bringing the physicality that we thought might be lacking without Kofi.
Dain Dainja sets great screens allowing Skyy Clark to beat his defender and the opposing big has to step up allowing the roller in Dainja to collect the pocket pass and score. pic.twitter.com/hGTPHGsard— Hoop Informatics (@HoopInformatics) November 15, 2022
Epps, on the other hand, has been a pleasant surprise. He’s been effective from the perimeter (44% from 3) and taken full advantage of the extra playing time available with Luke Goode’s injury.
Skyy Clark’s Health
Coming into the season after rehabbing from an ACL tear no one really knew what to expect from Skyy Clark, but so far the returns have been promising. He has played at least 20 minutes in each game and hasn’t been afraid to attack the paint and seems to trust that his body has recovered enough for him to play at a high level.
He's a freshman, y'all. @skyyclark x @IlliniMBB pic.twitter.com/0C20eGmbPK— Illinois on BTN (@IllinoisOnBTN) November 15, 2022
The big games from Clark will definitely come down the road and these initial games were an important step in the right direction for him.
Areas of Concern
As is the case with the start of any season there is going to be a lot of rust/growing pains, but there are some things the Illini need to take care of if we want to succeed in Vegas.
Against EIU and Kansas City, Illinois shot below 70% from the free throw line, which has been a lingering problem for the last few years. Additionally, against EIU and Monmouth they had 15+ turnovers. Illinois can’t be turning the ball over as much against more talented teams, especially ones with deep veteran rosters like UCLA and Virginia
Starting Lineup Production
TSJ has scored almost half of the points (68 out of 156) that the starting lineup has produced so far this season. We talked about Skyy Clark above, but I think everyone expected a bit more production from the other three (Coleman Hawkins, Matthew Mayer, RJ Melendez). Mayer has struggled a bit from 3 (25%), RJ has struggled from the field (32%), and Hawkins is getting outplayed by Dainja. Stronger teams will start to focus more of their defensive efforts on Shannon if these guys don’t step up.
Overall, we couldn’t have asked for a much better start and we should be feeling good about where we are as a team. This upcoming weekend in Vegas will tell us a lot more about where this team stands on the national stage.