TCR Contributor CJ Jackson is a former member of the Illinois Basketball team, playing for the Illini from 2005-09.
After being dropped out of the Top 25 after just one loss to the then-No. 4 team in the country, we should have a clear understanding of what is going to be the Illini’s story this year. “Prove it!”
If you go back in the very recent years we’ve have some really good teams. Unfortunately not good enough to make a deep tourney run after getting the coveted No. 1 seed in the big dance. Even with beating the No 1 team in the nation (Kansas) in an exhibition match and going down to the wire with the No. 4 team (Marquette), Illinois STILL has a lot to prove. We have to MAKE the nation respect us. Simple as that.
How do we earn respect?
We’re going to have to under promise and over deliver all season long. We have to keep the mindset that we are not the top feared competitor for the Big Ten title, while simultaneously playing with a chip on our shoulder as if it’s ours to lose.
We have some good teams in the conference this year. Namely Pur-don’t at the top. We have to remind ourselves that we can and have beaten top teams when the big lights are on.
Again, I truly believe we faired well beating Kansas in a the preseason exhibition and were one or two plays away from edging Marquette. We’re not cowering to highly ranked opponents. But every game is an opportunity to prove to the nation that we will be one of those teams being talked about a few rounds into the big dance come March.
There are a few things that we need to keep doing. One thing is that we need to continue to rebound. Quincy Guerrier is having his way on the boards individually which helps us almost crack the top 5 in the nation at grabbing boards as a team. This is SO important and cannot be emphasized enough.
Terrence Shannon Jr. has to stay aggressive! When he’s attacking the game and not waiting for the game to come to him, Illinois is an entirely different team. Look at the difference in the second half of the Valpo game. When he decided to put his head down and attack the rim both in halfcourt and in transition…Illinois ends up +30 over the second half alone. Same thing when he was aggressive offensively against Western Illinois. He goes 6-of-8 from 3 and only needs 26 minutes to impose his dominance. His teammates follow.
This is KEY.
Not only does Illinois need to know who our guy is, but the conference and nation must know as well. The way he’s attacking while being willing to distribute mid-attack this year vs. last year will give teams fits because you can’t hyper focus on him alone.
What needs to improve?
I mentioned this before. We can’t be a subpar 50-55% free throw shooting team. This can and will crush us in close games. Dain Dainja is such a big part of this team just based on his inside presence alone. This is on both the offensive and defensive end. He’s so valuable out there but we all know if a player can’t consistently capitalize from the FT line, then they become a liability down the stretch practically rendering themselves useless when it matters the most in close games. Not that it’s just him.
Goode is too good of a shooter to be at 40%. Shannon Jr. is floating just under 70%, which is scary knowing how much he attacks and finds himself at the stripe. Guerrier is too aggressive and will earn freebies at the line but HAS to shoot above 50%.
No need to ring the alarm about the ranking snub. We’re six games in and have so much growth and improvement ahead of us. I believe this is one of those teams that will only improve as the season continues. With our depth, defense, and our ability to play small & big ball as needed, I think we will only put more pressure on those who don’t believe in us now.
As a former player, there’s nothing better than looking at the people who doubted you before and letting your success be the loudest “I told you so” ever not spoken.