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Illinois shows some signs of life

Underwood and Bielema both get huge commitments.

Coleman Hawkins and Terrence Shannon, Jr. combine for 44 points in the Wisconsin victory. Both players were (7-11) from the floor. Batman and Robin?
TCR // Jack Jungmann

You guys, it happened.

Illinois football and Illinois basketball had great days simultaneously on Saturday. Be still, my heart (insert heart eyes emoji).

We’ll get to the specifics of Bret Bielema finally getting the other shoe to drop with the nationally televised commitment of 4-star prep wideout Malik Elzy (Chicago Simeon). Be patient. This column is mostly good news.

Rock bottom is a place no person — or no one team — wants to be. The old adage of “when you hit rock bottom, the only way is up” was life imitating art at State Farm Center on Saturday.

Little Brother Northwestern laid a beating on Illinois earlier in the week to snap an eight-game losing streak to the Illini on the hardwood. A few days later, uber-talented freshman point guard Skyy Clark left the team, at least temporarily. Another blow to the already shattered confidence of Illini Nation.

As fans piled in to a sold out SFC to greet the visiting No. 14 Wisconsin Badgers, the tension was so thick that you cut have sliced it with a Victorinox. The loyal fans have waited for what seems like an eternity for a breakout performance and some legitimate, hard-nosed fight.

Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, its not Superman. It’s...decidedly decisive Coleman Hawkins and TSJ to the rescue!

Hawk and Shannon finally spread their wings and leaned into their true identities. Teams follow leaders.

Wisconsin v Illinois
Hawkins didn’t hesitate to shoot the ball and TSJ didn’t hesitate to get to the bucket and the line. Both not only played their roles, but executed at high levels.
Photo by Justin Casterline/Getty Images

Head coach Brad Underwood has done everything just about everything to get them to fight, play hard and compete. We got the trifecta...finally.

Underwood promised to be “more stoic” in the most recent contest after seeing his team display some of these characteristics during practice this week. He seemed to make good on his promise.

Of course, you look better when the ball goes in the hoop. This performance by the Illini was more than that. It wasn’t solely about making shots. It was about ball movement, people movement and getting after it on the defensive end. These three things are the staples for BU since he began coaching nearly four decades ago.

Wisconsin was only 8-of-29 from three and Chucky Hepburn made two of them from the hash mark. Much better effort in that area. It’s not shocking the outcome was better.

Underwood cracks a wry smile and adjusts his blazer after his team secures a “must win” victory at home. He looks pleased. It’s been a while.
TCR // Jack Jungmann

With Clark’s untimely departure potentially fueling the “Real Housewives of Champaign” fire propagated by media outlets like The Field of 68 (which is lamentingly true), Saturday’s game against a predictably over-achieving Wisconsin squad seemed like a fresh load of aged lumber.

Instead, Underwood’s squad did the opposite. They brought their own fire.

Freshman PG Jayden Epps used the extra burn to ignite instant offense off the bench, snuffing out any chance of defeat.

Epps had 15 points, three rebounds and two assists to be the fourth Illini in double figures on the day, with wing Matthew Mayer chipping in 10 points and six boards of his own. Epps wasn’t bullet proof, however. He had several horrible turnovers against the press in the second half. But here is the point.

He is a freshman. He needs to experience game reps at game speed. Mistakes in a win are PRICELESS. Underwood cannot afford to give these freshman the lack of playing time he gave RJ Melendez and Luke Goode last year.

Epps is interviewed by the incomparable Brian Barnhart. He is the future of the program.
TCR // Jack Jungmann

This is the sort of offensive balance that Underwood dreamt of in his sleep since his team was escorted out of the tourney by bully Houston last spring.

You can’t space the floor if the defense doesn’t have to spread out. It’s not about spacing of the offense, it’s spreading out the defense.

Once Goode returns, and IF Melendez can find his shooting stroke, the commitment to excellence on the court will do nothing but strengthen.

The Illini shot 52.6% from three, with 10 makes on 19 attempts. They also fared well from the line (19-of-26 for 73.1%). The team only shot a pair of free throws in the first half. The Illini have not made a free throw in the first half of back-to-back games. This cannot be a remote possibility if success is to be extended beyond one game.

Underwood wasn’t the only Illini coach to get big commitment at the university.

Bret Bielema scores Elzy from Chicago Simeon. He too is in search of balance for his program.

Here is what it looked like, not only on ESPN, but also on the jumbotron at State Farm Center in the second half. Huge pop from the crowd on this one:

Besides filling obvious need at this position for 2023, Elzy represents a great win on the trail against some high-major programs. It’s been a long time coming for Bielema, who has frequently been a bridesmaid, but hasn’t put on the white dress for a top prospect since coming to Champaign.

Incoming transfer QB Luke Altmeyer will be besties with Elzy by the end of spring practice.

There is light at the end of the tunnel. And, it’s not a freight train coming out way.

This is Illinois basketball. This is Illinois football.