Let’s just take a long, deep breath and forget about Illinois football for a few minutes.
It’s October, and do you know what that means? We’re only a month away from the start of college basketball season.
Illini fans, buckle up. Many of you will go through the same cycle that you do every year: you’ll watch college basketball for five straight months, and after getting even more entrenched in the chaos that is March Madness, you’ll witness it come to its inevitable end and sit there, wanting more, and wondering what you’ll watch for the next six months before it starts again.
This is the feeling most fans get as those final seconds tick off the clock in the national championship. But last season, Illinois fans experienced a very different feeling long before that: relief.
Relief isn’t usually something one would experience watching a favorite team get eliminated in the tournament, but that’s exactly what happened with the 2022-23 Fighting Illini.
Long story short, the team was a disaster. Not even taking into account Skyy Clark’s midseason departure or the additional transfers of Jayden Epps and RJ Melendez, awful shot selection, constant turnover problems and evident lacks of leadership and effort plagued the Illini all year long.
The sheer talent on this team was good enough to power it through all the glaring problems and make another NCAA Tournament appearance, however, but the pipe dream of getting back to the coveted Sweet 16 quickly dissipated in the first round in an ugly loss to Arkansas.
Even to the untrained eye, that team needed to improve on almost every front. For a season that started with so much promise, it became evident that this team wasn’t built to compete.
Now, that’s going to change.
There’s nothing more predictable and easy to guard than a one-dimensional offense. Last year’s squad shot an astounding 42% of its shots from beyond the arc, but that wasn’t even its biggest problem.
Its biggest problem happened to be making them. Not only did Illinois shoot nearly half of its shots from three, but the team also ranked 335th out of 363 Division 1 teams in three-point percentage (30.8%).
Why continue to shoot threes when you can’t make them? Well, many people criticized the coaches with this exact question. More and more, we saw them continue to allow this team that could not make threes to attempt nearly 25 per game.
“I think that’s something that team had to do,” said head coach Brad Underwood.
The Illini repeatedly chucked up threes with no signs of improvement, and that wasn’t even the worst part. They did so in contested situations early on in the shot clock.
Underwood compared last year’s shot-selection issues to a statement Bret Bielema made before Saturday’s loss to Purdue.
“You can’t throw an interception on 1st or 2nd down,” Underwood said. “It’s like shooting a three with 17 or 18 [seconds] on the clock with a hand in your face. Nothing good happens when you do that.”
If the Illini want to advertise themselves as a three-point shooting team this year, the shot selection needs to improve drastically. Underwood believes that this team has what it takes to turn the tides and make this offense formidable again.
“I think this team is entirely different,” Underwood said.
Rivaling the shot selection last season was the constant failure to take care of the ball. The Illini were tied for last in the Big Ten in turnovers a game (12.9) and last in turnover-to-assist ratio (.96 A/TO), ranking 231st and 227th in the nation, respectively.
The offense was severely hurt by this poor decision-making, allowing Illinois to give countless possessions away and often fall into big first-half holes that were difficult to climb out of.
“The freedom and random-ness with which we played last year hurt us,” Underwood said. “We had too many unforced turnovers.”
Fifth-year senior Terrence Shannon Jr. experienced those troubles last year as much as everyone else, but he can already see massive improvements in their offensive game plans before the season has even started.
“We will be more consistent offensively,” Shannon said. “The floor is gonna be spaced out, [and] we’ll be attacking gaps. It’ll be hard to help [on defense] because we all can shoot.”
The Illinois offense is getting completely revamped, but Underwood and Shannon are comfortable that all their players — newcomers and returners — already have a good enough understanding of their offense to be a much bigger threat this season.
A big sign that last year’s team was heading in a downward spiral was its lack of a consistent effort shown on the court. None of us like pointing fingers, but Matthew Mayer and Jayden Epps (at times) were prime examples of this.
Northwestern @ Illinois was a tough, drag out game..— ᗩᑎT ᗯᖇIGᕼT (@itsAntWright) June 17, 2023
But Jayden Epps moping while his Illinois team was mounting a huge comeback has stolen my attention
Now, the guys (old and new) are eager to compete in everything they do. Underwood says they are ultra competitive, so much so that many of them were attempting to break the program’s mile-time record — one that most players never even consider competing for.
Justin Harmon did just that, running a mile time of 4:41 — breaking the record previously shared by Trent Frazier and Jacob Grandison.
“This year, they’re trying to shatter records,” Underwood said.
Not only is the level of competition higher, these players are already showing they don’t just care about getting out onto the court and racking up big numbers.
“We’re obviously older, we’re more mature, [and] we’re physical,” Underwood said. “That excites me.”
The Illini did what they needed to in the offseason. They got rid of the potential “locker-room cancers” and kept the players that they believed could become true leaders in this upcoming season: Terrence Shannon Jr. and Coleman Hawkins.
Shannon is entering his second year with the Illini, and his first-year included many unforgettable moments that highlighted an otherwise frustrating year.
TERRENCE SHANNON JUNIOR IS A BAD MAN pic.twitter.com/CVcKonrVQw— Barstool Illini (@BarstoolILL) February 24, 2023
Terrence Shannon's open-court speed is wild. What a chase-down block. pic.twitter.com/ySxNEJnSCR— Brandon Simberg (@BrandonSimberg) March 5, 2023
Terrence Shannon Jr. says welcome back, College Basketball— Illini Fan Nation (@TheIlliniFN) November 8, 2022
Although he served as the main offensive leader in terms of production, Shannon had problems staying consistent, and he nor Hawkins were seen being consistent vocal leaders for a team that was in desperate need for them last season.
Shannon has had conversations during the offseason with his coaches about the need to grow into more of a leadership role, and he’s learned that most of it will be uncomfortable, but it’s necessary if he wants to lead this team.
“[You] can’t have any hard feelings,” Shannon said. “I feel like that’s what I lacked last year. I had a lot of regrets biting my tongue last year to certain guys.”
Shannon never specified who he was referring to, but he recognizes now that it’s unacceptable to not keep his teammates and himself accountable.
“You can’t do that. You’re not gonna win just letting stuff slide, because it all adds up,” Shannon said. “That’s why we had an early exit last year.”
Underwood constantly reiterates the difficulty of leadership to his players, and he believes it’s getting even harder to find in today’s age.
“Sometimes, to be a leader, you have to tell someone you really care about something they don’t want to hear,” Underwood said. “This team has some natural leaders. I think we’re still trying to identify who all those leaders are.”
Shannon is confident that he can lead this team, but he also knows that he won’t be taking on this challenge alone. In their limited time together, he has already seen Hawkins, Harmon, Ty Rodgers, Marcus Domask and Quincy Gurrier step up into leadership roles.
“It’s gonna be a player-led team,” Shannon said. Just like Coach Brad says, ‘Player-led teams get further in March Madness than teams that are led by coaches.’”
“We didn’t set rules for this team. We set standards,” Underwood said. “Rules, you have to abide by. Standards, you live by.”
When Underwood said this to his team, every player stood up and expressed what was important for them to help this team succeed.
Sounds like a bunch of natural leaders to me.
I know what you’re thinking. Last year’s team had so much potential too, so how do we know this year will be different?
Technically, we don’t. However, there’s one obvious advantage this new-look team has over last year’s: it now has a perfect blueprint of what NOT to do.
Although very hard to live through, the program may have needed a season like last year’s. Failure is the greatest teacher, and the learning opportunities Underwood, his staff and his players have from that team are substantial.
There were plenty of mistakes made, but good coaches have a way of adjusting after making those mistakes and coming back the next year stronger than ever.
What made Illinois teams of years past so successful is always having that leadership presence. Last season was the first one in the Underwood era without the incredible leadership presence of guys like Trent Frazier and Da’Monte Williams.
Coming into last year, should we really have expected two transfers with little-to-no leadership experience to come in and lead a bunch of inexperienced underclassmen to a solid season?
Now, not only are transfers coming in WITH leadership experience, but they’ll be led by guys who have been here and know what it takes to turn things around.
Time will tell to see how these guys work together and reach their goals, but one thing is for sure.
This team is different.