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How Illinois responds now will tell us everything

The team mounted a comeback against a tough team, but the results leave much to be desired.

Illinois v Maryland Photo by Greg Fiume/Getty Images

There is something beautiful and poetic about the way Terrence Shannon Jr. plays basketball.

He dunks like he’s angry at the rim.

He plays with a mix of effervescent joy and visible scowling that makes him a scary cover.

He has the natural length and leaping ability that NBA scouts drool over.

And his beautiful ferocity is becoming a metaphor for the 2022-23 Fighting Illini.

When Shannon’s game is built on a foundation of controlled rage, the Illini seem limitless.

Illinois v Maryland Photo by Greg Fiume/Getty Images

The same can be said of the Illini on both ends of the court. In their Big Ten opener in College Park Maryland, the No. 22 Terrapins beat the Illini, 71-66. And yes, it was a tough road environment against a good team with loads of experience.

But this is an Illini team with higher aspirations. This is the most complete roster head coach Brad Underwood has fielded during his tenure in Champaign. But the great vengeance and furious anger that produce points in bunches and air tight full court defense waxes and wanes.

Friday’s game did not produce the statement victory that would put an exclamation point on the trip 220 miles north to Madison Square Garden to face a No. 2 Texas Longhorns squad on Tuesday. Chris Beard’s team has steamrolled the majority of its competition this season. The dynamic scoring combo of Minnesota transfer Marcus Carr and Iowa State transfer Tyrese Hunter has Texas thinking about cutting down the nets.

To contain the Texas backcourt, the fury of Shannon and the Illini must be controlled. Jayden Epps can’t spend a considerable amount of time playing with four fouls. Matthew Mayer has to play like a grad transfer in the rhythm of an offense and not like a nervous, skittish newcomer. In other words, a 2-point, 2-rebound game won’t cut it for a player expected to bring leadership to a young, developing program.

Skyy Clark has to be prepared for a battle on both ends. He was outplayed by Jahmir Young in College Park, and his resilience will be tested. Will he have the bounce back game Illinois needs from him?

Illinois v Maryland Photo by Greg Fiume/Getty Images

The Illini will head to the world’s most famous arena with a talented, deep, versatile roster. Coleman Hawkins has found another level to his game. RJ Melendez is showcasing the shooting stroke and bounciness on both ends of the floor that make him a legitimate NBA prospect. Terrence Shannon has had far more ups than downs this season, and appears to be exactly the player Illinois has been pursuing for the last five years.

Illinois shot 25% from three-point range. Some of that was shot selection and solid defense. Some of that was a byproduct of trying to play at a lighting pace. But that’s not going to beat anyone. This is where Skyy Clark, Jayden Epps, Matthew Mayer, and others have to step their game up.

Dain Dainja being a consistent threat in the post will open up more shooting opportunities. Perhaps running more offense through the big man and having Coleman Hawkins as a primary facilitator in the half court is an approach the Illini can lean on.

I’m sure Coach Underwood will be up all night thinking about closeouts. Maryland simply had too many good looks. And the ferocity with which the Illini can play was absent for large chunks of the game.

Terrence Shannon Jr. with a bandage over his eye and a homicidal look on his face is the perfect avatar for what the Illini basketball team can be for the rest of the season: able to take everyone’s best shot and still come back for more. Like many, I believe in this roster and young men who can make it special. And there are going to be several head butts to the eye throughout conference play and beyond.

How the Illini respond will determine how special this season can truly be.