Sweet 16 or bust.
Bold statement for a team that hasn’t seen the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament since 2005. Some may not agree with a Sweet 16 appearance being the measuring stick of success for this team, but three straight disappointing tourney exits has left the fanbase expecting a bit more.
Let’s take a trip down memory lane for a moment.
March of 2020 came and went without even crowning a Big Ten Tournament champion. Ayo Dosunmu, Kofi Cockburn, Andres Feliz, Trent Frazier, and Alan Griffin had Illinois playing some of their best basketball late in that season. I know some of you bought the “ILLINOIS WOULD HAVE WON THE 2020 TOURNAMENT” t-shirts. Realistically, that team wasn’t quite ready to make a deep tournament run. Although, even a game or two of tournament experience really could have propelled the 2021 team. We’ll never truly know.
March of 2021, undoubtedly the best year for the program since 2005. Solidifying a 1 seed by winning 14 of its last 15 games heading into the NCAA tourney, this team looked prime for a deep run. Ayo earned First-Team All-American honors, with Kofi on the Second Team. They won a dominant game over Drexel only to look completely lost against Loyola-Chicago’s second-best defense in the country (Kenpom). That team needed tournament experience desperately.
March of 2022, the Illini won a share of the conference championship on the final day of the regular season (thank you, Nebraska). While they didn’t have as much star power as the prior year after losing Ayo to the NBA, this team felt like they could make some noise. They came out flat against Chattanooga and barely scraped by with a victory, only to (yet again) run into a top-10 defense in the country in the Houston Cougars (Kenpom). Illinois was down 5 with about 5 minutes to go in that game, but then let up an 11-0 run to Houston.
March of 2023, Terrence Shannon Jr. and Matthew Mayer brought plenty of star power and NCAA Tournament experience to this roster. However, noted chemistry issues, selfish play, and poor three-point shooting prevented this team from making any sort of run down the stretch. Midway through the first half against Arkansas in the first round, it was clear this team was outmatched. Another year, another first weekend exit.
Lack of NCAA Tournament experience (2021), limited star power (2022), along with poor three-point shooting and chemistry issues (2023) have marred three straight trips to the Big Dance. All signs point towards a different approach with this roster construction.
Limited NCAA Tournament experience is still a slight concern. However, this team added maturity that could lead to tourney success. If the starting lineup for the Kansas exhibition game remains the same for the start of the season, Underwood will start a fifth-year senior (TSJ), two graduate fifth-year players (Domask & Guerrier), a senior (Hawkins) and a sophomore (Rodgers). Dain and Goode will bring depth off the bench as juniors, and Justin Harmon is a graduate addition returning to his third year of Division I. Mix in some hungry underclassmen in Sencire Harris, Dra Gibbs-Lawhorn, Amani Hansberry, and Niccolo Moretti, and this has all the makings for a team that should have second weekend aspirations.
As for star power, the Illini have two players on NBA mock draft boards with Terrence Shannon Jr. and Coleman Hawkins. That’s more than a lot of teams can boast. If this team plays cohesively, they have plenty of talent to give teams fits in March.
Regarding three-point shooting and chemistry concerns. We’ll have to wait and see how this plays out, but as I addressed in a prior article, this team appears to have gotten better at shooting from beyond the arc. Coach Underwood had this to say after the exhibition against Kansas: “It’s all about understanding one thing: Everybody in here is going to have their moments. Every single person is going to have their moments. The beauty of our team is our depth.” There’s no doubt that Underwood has been harping on continuity and being unselfish all offseason.
Their two exhibitions have provided plenty of optimism for the 2023-24 season. Here are some observations from the Illinois vs. Kansas charity game on Sunday:
- Shannon Jr. and Hawkins looked much improved from the three-point line, going a combined 9 for 18. The team shot 40.7% for the game which is a great sign for a team that really struggled last year (bottom 6% in team three-point percentage in 2022-23).
- The crunch time lineup featured Domask, Harmon, Shannon Jr., Guerrier, and Hawkins. It’s not surprising that coach Underwood trusts Harmon over Rodgers late in the game. He’s much better from the free throw line and provides more of an outside threat when TSJ is looking to drive and kick to shooters. Guerrier and Harmon were very impressive down the stretch. Guerrier made a big 3 and attacked the basket multiple times in the second half to finish with 13 points. Harmon also had a timely cut to the basket for an easy layup to extend the Illini lead to 6 with about 2:30 to play.
- Dain Dainja only played 9 minutes. This could be mostly due to the matchup, but it is still worth noting. Underwood seemed to really like Coleman at the 5, which pulled Hunter Dickinson out to the perimeter since he had to honor Coleman’s ability to shoot. This led to some offensive rebounds and second-chance points. It also eliminated Hunter as a rim protector and allowed for more driving opportunities.
Whether fair or not, with three straight tournament appearances, fans can’t help but increase their expectations for the Fighting Illini. The new look roster hosts Eastern Illinois on Monday to kick off the season. Let’s hope reality matches my expectations.