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Illinois showing firepower & versatility early on

So far, so good.

NCAA Basketball: Eastern Illinois at Illinois Ron Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

The Illini basketball team has begun the 2023-24 season with two impressive victories over Eastern Illinois and Kansas (exhibition). The Illini, ranked No. 25 in the preseason AP poll, have shown their offensive firepower and defensive intensity in both games, while also displaying their depth and versatility.

The Illini tipped off their 2023-24 season with an impressive 82-75 win over the Kansas Jayhawks in an exhibition game where they led most of the way. Playing in front of a packed crowd at the State Farm Center in Champaign, the 25th-ranked Illini showed they are ready to contend this season by knocking off the top-ranked Jayhawks.

Illinois was led by Terrance Shannon Jr, who scored 28 points on 8-of-13 shooting including 5 threes. Fellow NBA Draft entrant Coleman Hawkins poured in four threes of his own and finished with 14 points, creating frequent matchup problems for the Jayhawks in ball screen situations. The Illini had two other double figure scorers in Domask (11) and Guerrier (13) to pace things offensively. As a team, the Illini shot 45% from the field and 41% from three.

Kansas hung tight throughout the contest, down just 47-43 at the half. It was just a two-point lead for the Illini at the 9:39 mark left in the game. But the strong perimeter shooting was too much for a Jayhawks squad that struggled from deep, as the Illini finished with 11 total threes while the Jayhawks went 1-of-9 from deep in the second half.

Transfers Kevin McCullar Jr. and Hunter Dickinson led the Jayhawks scoring attack, combining for 47 points and 17 rebounds between them. After the game, McCullar acknowledged a lack of depth while Dickinson recognized a need to focus in on the defensive end to better help his team win.

While it’s only an exhibition, this win shows the potential of this year’s Illinois team. Brad Underwood hasn’t been shy about infusing his roster with transfers to create a more veteran group, and that experience should help the Illini throughout the season in key moments. The Illini displayed tenacious defense, strong rebounding, and balanced scoring in knocking off Kansas.

In their season opener, the Illini hosted the Eastern Illinois Panthers at the State Farm Center. The Illini dominated the game from start to finish, winning 80-52. Illinois shot 50% from the field and 31.3% from the three-point line, while holding the Panthers to 29% and 36.4%, respectively. The Illini also outrebounded the Panthers 50-40 and had 15 assists on 29 made baskets.

The Illini were led by freshman guard Dra Gibbs-Lawhorn, who scored a game-high 18 points on 7-of-10 shooting, including 2-of 5 from beyond the arc. Gibbs-Lawhorn, a four-star recruit from Indiana, showed his scoring ability and confidence in his debut, earning praise on both counts from Underwood. Senior guard Terrence Shannon Jr., who withdrew from the NBA Draft to return to Illinois, added 16 points, 5 rebounds, and 2 steals. Shannon Jr., a first-team All-Big Ten selection last season, displayed his athleticism and leadership on both ends of the floor.

The Illini also got contributions from their bench, as junior guard Luke Goode scored 9 points with 3 threes, big man Dain Dainja added 8 points and 6 rebounds, and freshman forward Amani Hansberry had 7 points and 8 rebounds. This balanced effort from the Illini should make them a tough out in most contests this season as teams will encounter their speed, length, versatility, and veteran experience.

The Illini have shown their potential and promise in their first two games, but they also have areas to improve on. Illinois has committed 26 turnovers in two games, which is too high for a team that wants to compete for a Big Ten title and a deep NCAA Tournament run. Their interior defense and rebounding need work, as they have allowed 50 points in the paint to Kansas and 25 total offensive rebounds in two games. Given the mix of many new faces both veterans and rookies, consistency and balance will be key with this roster, as they have relied heavily on their veterans for scoring outside of the breakout performance from Gibbs-Lawhorn.

The Illini will face another tough test on Tuesday when they host the No. 5 Marquette Golden Eagles at the State Farm Center. The Golden Eagles return pre-season All-American Tyler Kolek and Big East Sixth Man of the Year David Joplin in what should be another strong Big East contending season for head coach Shaka Smart.

The Illini will also play four more non-conference games in November, against Oakland, Valparaiso, Southern, and Western Illinois. They will look to build on their momentum and confidence, while also working through early season growing pains and developing their chemistry. The Illini have high expectations and aspirations for this season, and they have shown that they have the talent and the toughness to achieve them.