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Illinois’ backcourt has “Skyy” high expectations

A set of young blue-chippers hopes to build the Illini’s offensive identity.

Syndication: Akron Beacon Journal Jeff Lange / USA TODAY NETWORK

This offseason has ushered in a total changing of the guard (pun intended) for the Illini backcourt. Fifth-year stalwarts Da’Monte Williams and Trent Frazier, grad transfer Alfonso Plummer, and other guards Brandin Podziemski and Andre Curbelo have all moved on.

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: MAR 11 Big Ten Tournament - Indiana v Illinois Photo by Brian Spurlock/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Underwood and Co. immediately got to work in the transfer portal, targeting highly regarded transfers Brandon Murray (LSU) and Terrence Shannon (Texas Tech), ultimately landing the latter and sparking a talent reload in the backcourt. Shannon has been accompanied by decorated high school recruits Skyy Clark (no. 33 nationally per 247Sports), Sencire Harris (no. 109), and Jayden Epps (no. 72).

This group brings a great deal of athleticism and dribble-drive capability, but the three-point shot may be more of a challenge for this year’s Illinois group, a significant shift from the three-point-heavy attack the past few seasons.

Let’s preview the mix of talent in the backcourt for this new look Illini team.

Terrence Shannon

Underwood earned much praise from the media for bringing in Shannon, who brings the dribble-drive capability, capable three-point shooting, and defensive versatility that the Illini lost with former All-American Ayo Dosunmu.

Coming from Texas Tech—one of the top defensive squads in college basketball—Shannon is the prototypical player that Underwood looks to build his teams around: versatile wing players who score at all three levels and defend at a high level.

Texas Tech v Duke Photo by Lance King/Getty Images

Despite having a similar physical profile, play style, and shooting percentages to the former Illini star, the question is whether Shannon can be the number one offensive option for a top-tier Big Ten and NCAA tournament team. He never played more than 27 minutes per game at Texas Tech and averaged 10.2 PPG there last season.

Those numbers are going to have to surely increase if Illinois is going to reach its potential while bringing along a trio of young, inexperienced but talented guards.

Skyy Clark

The high 4-star recruit and former Kentucky commit has been a key piece of the buzz and excitement this offseason for this Illinois group.

Clark likely slots in as the day one starter at point guard for Brad Underwood, replacing Illini legend and fan favorite Trent Frazier. Clark has been busy rehabbing and recovering from an ACL tear he suffered in high school. Happily, he’s been fully involved in practices since the late summer.

His work ethic has been highly regarded by the staff and hopefully all the weight room work with strength coach Adam Fletcher will help Clark return to form—Illini fans hope to see the burst and explosiveness that shot him up the high-school recruiting rankings.

From a skill-set standpoint, Clark brings enough size at 6-foot-3 to pair nicely with his ability to attack the basket and get to his mid-range shot. In high school, he showed some range, shooting 37% from deep in his junior season.

If Clark returns to full health and continues to grow his game with more experience at this higher level, Illini fans will have a lot to be excited about.

Sencire Harris

Harris joins the Illini as the no. 2 player from the state of Ohio, hailing from LeBron James’s alma mater St. Vincent-St. Mary. Underwood described Harris as having a “ceiling that’s through the roof.”

The Illini hope he reaches that potential early, as much scoring will need to be replaced from last year’s team. Like almost all Underwood recruits, Harris has a strong winning pedigree, bringing home high school state championships in 2021 and 2022.

Countering the glut of small guards that Underwood had last season, Harris brings good size at 6-foot-4 and a great deal of defensive potential. Harris thrives in transition and in the mid range, similar to his veteran teammate Terrence Shannon.

Three-point shooting is likely something that Harris will have to work on and develop at this level. However, he likely won’t have to shoulder too heavy of an offensive load with the presence of Shannon, Clark, RJ Melendez, and Luke Goode.

Jayden Epps

Epps, the no. 1 player in North Carolina, comes to the Illini thanks to the tireless recruiting efforts of assistant coach Chester Frazier.

HIGH SCHOOL BASKETBALL: JAN 15 Spalding Hoophall Classic Photo by John Jones/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Like his other backcourt teammates, Epps possesses an athletic burst and a knack for getting out in the open floor. He often puts defenses on their heels as he looks to get to the rim and attack from midrange.

Underwood has noted Epps’s “scorer’s mentality,” something this team will need as it finds its new offensive identity with a largely new group.

Epps likely projects as a shooting guard at this level and won’t be asked to handle or distribute as often with Clark, Shannon, and Melendez being on the roster. Like Harris, Epps will be put in a good position to do what he does well while not being asked to overextend himself too early as he adjusts to Big Ten basketball.

The Final Read

For someone who doesn’t usually trust freshmen easily, Underwood is displaying a ton of confidence in this trio of young guards.

They’ll be asked to shoulder the collective load offensively going into this season. They collectively have a high defensive ceiling and possess much raw athletic and offensive talent. This should be a strong recipe for success in what projects to be an overall down year for the conference.

There’s some boom or bust potential with this Illini backcourt, as is the case with any young group no matter their recruiting rankings. Shannon’s veteran presence and winning experience should help bring this group along to reach their collective potential sooner rather than later.