Happy New Year, Illini Nation!
What a long, strange trip in 2022.
Here’s a quick summary of Illini athletics last year.
- Brad Underwood won a Big Ten Championship, the first for the school in 17 years. Then, they lost in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament and the Round of 32 to Houston. The program has turned into a social media darling for all the wrong reasons.
- Bret Bielema led his team to EIGHT wins, and a trip to the ReliaQuest Bowl in Tampa Bay on Jan. 2. This is a hard thing to believe six months ago, but Illinois football completely blew the Big Ten West.
- Shauna Green has the women’s basketball team on a steam roll to start her first season at the helm. She starts 2023 with a record of 12-2 as Big Ten play starts to cook.
I know what you’re thinking. You had a few too many last night, your head is pounding and all you can think about is how all of the Jack in the Box restaurants in your are went bankrupt seven months ago. Oh, wait. That’s just me. Need tacos with buttermilk.
Here’s some quick resolutions and suggestions for 2023.
Underwood needs to make the Sweet 16, at minimum.
In a monumental step forward, BU completely changed the way Illinois attacked its opponent, albeit Bethune-Cookman. No more “switching everything,” no more five out and Dain Dainja and Sencire Harris were inserted into the starting lineup and had a few career highs each.
Before Underwood can see the impenetrable Sweet 16, he needs to right the ship in conference play and dig out of the 0-2 hole in which he currently resides. The adjustments post-Mizzou beatdown are the rope and shovel he needs.
However, if Illinois wants to find itself playing past the first few days of the Big Dance, a few key contributors will need to stand and deliver.
Underwood needs more from downtown from his expected starters.
Terrence Shannon, Coleman Hawkins and RJ Melendez take a boatload of threes and don’t make many. They are a combined 52/170 for a measly 30.6% on more than 13 attempts per game. Keep in mind that Shannon was 8/9 from downtown against UCLA and Hawkins was 5/8 from downtown against Eastern Illinois in the season opener.
If you take out those two individual games, the numbers are staggering. That moves the trio to 25.4% the rest of the season. Puke.
Dainja and Sencire Harris are both starting. They are huge liabilities at the line, especially Harris. They are a combined 24/57 at just 42.1%. Efficiency will not improve until these numbers do.
The team has more turnovers than assists. This is mind-numbingly baffling. A guard-heavy roster should theoretically improve ball security. It has been the direct opposite in 2022.
Illinois needs to stop throwing the ball to the other team and letting the other team take their ball. This is a major contributing factor to the offense being ranked 49th nationally and 9th in the Big Ten, even behind Northwestern and Nebraska.
See the below table.
Watch the damn bowl game. Be happy about it.
Illinois hasn’t been in a bowl of consequence since heading to Pasadena in 2007 to take on USC at the Rose Bowl Game. After a few nibbles at low-tier games, head coach Bret Bielema has his football team in a position to win a January bowl game against a respected SEC team, in Mississippi State.
Here is Bielema talking about how the ReliaQuest Bowl is a spring board into the 2023 season and plans.
Illinois Head Coach Bret Bielema on using the Reliaquest Bowl to see what is to come in the upcoming 2023 season pic.twitter.com/as4OrBg5k5— Dante J Furco (@DanteFurco) December 31, 2022
Illini football having a meaningful extra month of practice does nothing but overtly positive things for the program’s overall health. Despite Chase Brown (RB), Devon Witherspoon (CB) and Sydney Brown (S) all sitting out the game to increase their chances at health and wealth in the NFL this spring, there is plenty to watch for and learn about what 2023 could bring this fall.
Sophomore running back Josh McCray has been declared “100% healthy” by Bielema for the entirety of the bowl prep. Expect McCray to show what he can do as he keeps his redshirt intact for the season.
I’ll predict 23 carries for 111 yards and a touchdown.
For god’s sake, enjoy it.
Support the women’s program.
Go check out a game at State Farm Center and follow the team on social media. Green is an engaging leader and her players love her. Illinois hasn’t had a competent women’s team in a few decades.
This is year one for Green. Great things lay ahead for the team.
The program averaged 10.3 win a year the previous 10 season before Green’s arrival on campus.
Makira Cook is averaging 18.3 points per game on the back of absolutely blistering shooting. She is 47.9% from three and 81.8% from the charity stripe.
Genesis Bryant has fared even better shooting the ball. Bryant is at 50% from three (32-64) and a bionic 93.2% (41-44) from the line. Unreal numbers.
Overall, the team is 41.2% from beyond the arc and 77.6% from the line. Efficiency at its best.
Maybe Green could avail her services for men’s practices to help improve the shooting and efficiency for that team, too.
This is Illinois basketball. This is Illinois football. Happy New year.