Brad Underwood’s offseason turned out to be an immediate success upon hearing the news that Terrence Shannon Jr. and Coleman Hawkins would be returning for another season.
Getting back a First Team All-Big Ten player in Shannon and a defensive anchor and program leader in Hawkins provides the Illini with a high floor for success.
One major question has lingered throughout the entirety of the offseason, however: Does Illinois have enough at point guard?
“Everybody seems to be worried about it except me,” Underwood said during Big Ten Media Day in Minneapolis on Tuesday.
The Illini made a strong push for Toledo transfer point guard RayJ Dennis back in the spring before ultimately losing out to Baylor. Iowa State transfer Jeremiah Williams committed to Illinois for a brief period of time before quickly reopening his recruitment and transferring to Rutgers.
That left the coaching staff to look from within, settling on sophomore Ty Rodgers as the guy tasked with running the offense.
“One of the big mistakes last year was I didn’t play Ty Rodgers [at point guard] exclusively,” Underwood said.
Rodgers has plenty of experience playing on the ball back in high school and during his gold medal run with the Team USA’s U18 team in the FIBA Gold Cup, where he averaged 3.2 assists per game.
Throughout the recruiting process, he was given high marks for his court vision and passing. During his freshman season, he showed flashes of that during his time as a secondary ball handler off the bench.
One of the biggest bonuses of playing a lineup that features Rodgers at point guard? A long, defensive-minded lineup that features plus size at every position.
“One of the advantages of our team is positionally we can be very, very big,” Underwood said. “Starting Ty there, 6’6 with a 6’11 wingspan...I think that can be a real positive thing for us.”
Aside from Rodgers, Illinois has a multitude of other players who could see time at point guard at various points during the season.
Nicolo Moretti joined the program last winter from Italy. The brother of former Texas Tech standout point guard Davide Moretti, he’s a true point guard himself who was brought in because of the high-level ball handling and playmaking ability he showcased training at the NBA Global Academy in Australia.
“Nico got a jumpstart so-to-speak with practice time and in the weight room,” Underwood said. “[He] was fantastic on our trip to Spain.”
Underwood also mentioned Sencire Harris and freshman Dravyn Gibbs-Lawhorn as guys who have experience playing the lead guard spot.
“Sencire started 14 or 15 games last year at that spot,” Underwood said. “Dravyn is a guy that on our trip to Spain played there a lot.”
Harris was the first name called upon to start at point guard following Skyy Clark’s departure from the program in January. Gibbs-Lawhorn, a 4-star prospect, averaged 20.4 points and 4.4 assists with Overtime Elite last season.
Many in the college basketball media world have raised their concerns about the Illini’s point guard situation and have cited it as a reason the team could be held back from competing for a conference championship and making a deep March run.
Underwood doesn’t share those concerns. He feels his current options provide the Illini with everything they need.
“I feel really good about it,” Underwood said. “We’re multidimensional: we’ve got scoring there, we’ve got passing, we’ve got size.”
We’ll get our first look at the point guards along with the rest of the Illini roster in a week when Illinois tips off against Ottawa in its first exhibition game on Oct. 20.