The Illini have had a good start to the season. They're sitting at 7-3 after 10 games, but the uneven results have had the fans feeling confused on how to feel about this team. Illinois had notable top-10 wins against UCLA in Las Vegas and against Texas in New York City, but also dropped both of its Big Ten games and Maryland and vs. Penn State.
Let’s take a look again at what's been working and what hasn’t since the trip to Vegas.
They say you have to make the most of the opportunities you are given, and Jayden Epps has done exactly that. Epps has received more playing time than initially expected with Luke Goode’s injury and has excelled during his time on the court.
He’s put up 10+ points in 4 of the last 7 games coming off the bench. He was the leading scorer in the Virginia game where the rest of the team struggled, and more notably scored the last 5 points (via a corner 3 and clutch free throws) to send the Texas game to overtime. He showed incredible poise for being a freshman down the stretch of that game.
My chest hurts. Please. Help. Please. Jayden Epps. pic.twitter.com/8Sy7GNcTW3— Dariush Takhtehchian, M.D (@takhtehchianmd) December 7, 2022
After a relatively quiet start to the season, Matthew Mayer has turned it on over the last few games. He’s been the leading scorer the last two times out, including a huge 21-point performance against Texas at Madison Square Garden. His hot shooting in the first half kept Illinois in the game and he also finally found his touch from the perimeter, going 5-of-5 from 3.
The Matthew Mayer show in the garden. Another step back three. pic.twitter.com/GxlhTbQo5v— Hoop Informatics (@HoopInformatics) December 7, 2022
If Mayer can continue to produce at this rate, it’ll create more spacing for the team and take some of the defensive attention away from Terrence Shannon Jr. and Coleman Hawkins.
Coming into the season Sencire wasn’t getting the same attention as the rest of his fellow freshmen (Skyy Clark, Ty Rodgers, and Jayden Epps were all ESPN 100 recruits), and it was unclear how much playing time he would receive, if any. I think it’s safe to say that Harris has carved out an important role for himself on this team.
Harris has consistently provided a spark off the bench with his defense and kickstarted the comebacks in both the UCLA and Texas games. The offense still needs some work but without a doubt Harris can hold his own on defense. In the Penn State postgame press conference, Coach Underwood specifically called out Harris and said he was the only one on the team who consistently plays hard.
It’s early but his tenacity and effort on defense reminds me of fellow Illinois No. 1 Trent Frazier.
Areas of Concern
Lack of Offensive Flow
Outside of the Syracuse game the Illini offense hasn’t looked that cohesive as a unit. Particularly against Texas there was a lot of iso basketball being played with one player dribbling the ball for majority of the shot clock and then putting up a tough shot. We got lucky that Illinois’ shots were falling on that night, but that type of offense isn’t sustainable in the long run. There needs to be more movement off the ball and maybe some designed plays to help the team break out of any in-game offensive ruts.
We’ve seen in both of the comeback wins the team has had that if they get a little momentum they can flip the game, but the Illini just can’t let themselves get bogged down for too long or leave too much for the end of the game. The coaching staff also needs to work with the players to make in-game adjustments and try to run different things on offense if Plan A isn’t working.
Coach Underwood went off about his team’s effort after the Penn State game, and it’s something they need to get in order to make sure they don’t fall behind in the Big Ten.
"The lack of leadership on this team is zero, it's none. Inexcusable"#Illini coach Brad Underwood on a 74-59 loss to Penn St.— Bret Beherns (@WCIA3Bret) December 10, 2022
"We have been atrocious in practice, maybe the 2 worst days of practice leading up to a game I've been part of...put it bold damn print, leadership" pic.twitter.com/ywXzqJE5Cx
It’s easy for a young team to get a little complacent after big wins, and while the Penn State loss hurts, I think it may be blessing in disguise for the team in the long run. Some of the younger players just needed that “welcome to college basketball” moment and it’s better that it came early in the season when the stakes are lower.
Overall, I think those come from behind wins will pay dividends down the stretch of the season and there shouldn’t be any concern about this team making it to the tournament.
The growing pains were expected with a young roster and it’s up to the coaching staff to work on some of those mistakes along with the players realizing you can’t take any days off in the gauntlet that is the Big Ten.