Matt Rejc: Illinois 20-11 (11-9 Big Ten), Big Ten Tournament Quarterfinals, Sweet 16
I wrote an initial prediction prior to the Kansas exhibition, and it was pretty bleak. Essentially, I was ready to predict that lack of a true point guard was going to put a hard ceiling on what this team is able to accomplish.
What I saw on Sunday against the Jayhawks almost seemed like a direct challenge to my concerns. Going into the game, I was convinced that Ty Rodgers’ inexperience was going to be consistently exploited by opponents. Sure enough, he didn’t set the world on fire during the scrimmage: he matched his 3 assists with 3 turnovers and his best plays were around the basket rather than at around half-court. But rather than stubbornly playing one-dimensional basketball by forcing Rodgers to take the ball down the court all night, Brad Underwood adapted. Marcus Domask, Terrence Shannon, and others all played the role of lead guard on certain possessions and were able to keep the defending national champs off-balance. Seeing that, I came to realize that Brad has enough tricks up his sleeve and experienced players on his roster to negate the lack of an experienced point guard. Unlike John Groce, Brad won’t keep trying to cram a square peg through a round hole by putting too great a burden on a young point guard’s shoulders.
Like almost any college basketball season, this one won’t be without its lumps. The Illini will likely lose some games that they shouldn’t lose, the fanbase will burst into anger, and all will seem lost. But that’s what makes seasoned teams like this one great: they’ve been at the highest of highs and lowest of lows before, and they won’t let either situation get to their head.
With my main concern alleviated, and with the Illini fielding one of the most veteran-heavy rosters in recent memory, I feel confident in saying that not only should this team make the tournament, but they should finally get to the second weekend (and hopefully beyond).
Erik Krueger: Illinois 20-11 (12-8 Big Ten), Big Ten Tournament Semifinals, Sweet 16
This is the year the Illini break through and make the 2nd weekend of the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2005. Regular season accolades are great but this program has been there, done that. The focus in building this roster was clearly to become older and more mature. Things can quickly change, but as of right now this appears to be an unselfish team with a sole focus of winning. They have plenty of firepower at the top with Terrence Shannon Jr. and Coleman Hawkins - both of which are on most NBA mock draft boards - and Underwood added some key veteran pieces in Marcus Domask, Quincy Guerrier, and Justin Harmon. Dain Dainja provides a unique low post option, and Luke Goode has the ability to be a reliable shooter off the bench. Combine that with talented freshmen in Dra Gibbs-Lawhorn and Amani Hansberry, and this team has the ability to make some noise in March.
Even if Ty Rodgers playing point guard doesn’t go as planned, I feel confident in the other guards to initiate offense. The Kansas exhibition game showed that a combination of TSJ, Domask, Harmon, and Rodgers should be able to get the job done. And if Dra Gibbs-Lawhorn becomes acclimated quickly, that’s another ball handler to lean on.
Jack Jungmann: 24-7 (14-6 B1G), Big Ten Tournament Semifinals, Final Four
I’m all the way in. The scrimmage against Kansas made me a believer. This team is engineered for March (I know you’re sick of hearing that, but I don’t care).
Illinois is deep, versatile, and bought in. Ty Rodgers looks like he has all the pieces of taking the next step into being an elite Big Ten guard. Terrence Shannon, Jr is a First Team All-American. Coleman Hawkins is potentially the most versatile player in Illinois history. Luke Goode, Marcus Domask, Quincy Guerrier, Justin Harmon, and Dain Dainja give this team a much-needed veteran presence. Mix in young talent like Sencire Harris, Dra Gibbs-Lawhorn, Amani Hansberry, and a little international flavor with Niccolo Moretti, and this team looks phenomenal on paper.
It’s time for Brad Underwood to get to the second weekend in March. He has the team for it. This team rivals the 2020-21 Illini in terms of talent. This is the year it all comes together.
I think the Illini beat Marquette and FAU. The only non-conference loss I see is in Knoxville (please, please, please beat Mizzou). The Big Ten is stacked this year, so dropping 6 games might still land the Illini a conference title. However, I’m fully expecting to lose to Maryland twice.
Sip the Kool-aid, Illini fans. This team is good. Enjoy the ride.
Will Charlton: 24-7 (14-6 Big Ten), Big Ten Runner Up, Elite 8
This is it. This has got to be the year the demons of not making the second weekend get exorcised. With the depth and experience on this Illinois team, we very well could see some magic made in March. This is a year where you might find TSJ among talks of First-Team All-American, a year you might find Coleman Hawkins on the brink of First-Team All-Big Ten, and a year you might find Justin Harmon, Marcus Domask and/or Quincy Guerrier as All-Big Ten mentions. We’ve already seen it too, as this team just feels like it works together. Sure, we have a super small sample size, but dammit, we’re talking about beating the preseason No. 1 team. Now look, will TSJ drop 28 each game? No. But will others step up when a moment presents itself? Yes. Go get it fellas, this is your year.
I can’t be overly too confident — hence why I say Big Ten runner-up and Elite 8 — but this team’s ceiling is certainly to make it to Phoenix in early April.
Stephen Cohn: 23-8 (13-7 Big Ten), Big Ten Tournament Semifinals, National Champions
Let’s live a little.
23-8 in the regular season looks like that team had a good enough season to make the NCAA Tournament, but they weren’t spectacular. But isn’t that typically the kind of team we see make a run in March?
UCONN wasn’t some dominant team last year — hell, they didn’t win the Big East regular season or tournament titles. But they snuck up under the radar, had a veteran team built for March, and cruised to a title. Who says that can't be Illinois this year?