The Illini have had a turbulent start to the season, with two top-10 wins coupled with losses to Mizzou and the first three Big Ten games.
Those three conference losses have created quite the stir amongst the Illini fanbase, some calling for Brad Underwood’s job (we’re not doing that).
But over the past week, the Illini have won their last two games, playing like the team that many held in high regard coming into the season.
Let’s take a look at some of the things that went right that should have us optimistic for the rest of the season.
Terrence Shannon Jr. finding his groove
TSJ has seemed to turn things around in Big Ten play, since those three losses he struggled from the field shooting 38% and had 8 costly turnovers and didn’t cross the 20-point threshold once.
But in the last two games he’s shot an efficient 60% from the field and only had 2 turnovers while also topping 20 points in both games.
As we’ve said before, TSJ’s play will dictate the fate of this team on most nights, as he takes the most shots and he is one of the most experienced players on the team.
Hawkins showing why he’s on NBA draft boards
After Terrence Shannon Jr., Coleman Hawkins probably touches the ball the most on this team and his play during those losses was the talk of most of the fanbase.
Many expected more from Coleman, and he seems to have righted the ship in the last couple of games. He’s impacted the game in different ways each night — against Wisconsin he was a force from the perimeter draining six 3s, and against Nebraska he showcased his playmaking skills with 5 assists and played well on defense.
He hasn’t forced the issue too much and, as a result, has cut back on the costly turnovers. Over the last two games Hawkins has reminded everyone again why he’s on the radar of many NBA scouts, and that type of play is exactly what the Illini need from him to continue to win in the Big Ten.
Epps’ Stellar Play
Though the stakes have increased with every game, Jayden Epps has continued to show up. He has much more on his plate with Skyy Clark’s absence, and Epps hasn’t shown any signs of slowing down.
He’s scored in double digits in the last five games, regardless of where he’s been slotted in the lineup, showing impressive adaptability for a freshman.
Epps’ shotmaking will continue to be valuable in keeping the team alive in games if TSJ or Coleman are struggling or just to provide a spark off the bench in general.