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BU has taken the gloves off.
TCR // Staff

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Underwood and Illinois just raised the ceiling — and the floor — for 2024

See what I did there?

Happy Sunday, Illinois Land!

Brad Underwood and his basketball team do not play for another week.

The boys could use a little break.

After playing away-from-home three times in eight daysincluding two true road games in two hostile venuesUnderwood and his staff will enjoy elongated energy expenditure examining themselves.

The third game was a Jimmy V Classic thriller against Florida Atlantic on Tuesday.

A brutal three-game stretch.

NCAA Basketball: Illinois at Tennessee
Super Duper Senior Quincy Guerrier had his best game to date against Tennessee. 22 points and five rebounds, including 3-8 from three.
Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

Underwood allowed his team to employ the chuck and duck method for much of the game, attempting 36 threes and making only nine, bad for 25%.

What’s more, I think Illinois made three threes in the game’s opening minutes, on just four attempts.

Attempts aside, who’s shooting the shots and when is the more important factor.

Guerrier and Hawkins were a combined 3-29 (10.3%) from three coming into the game. They shot 18 threes in this game alone.

Goode was leading the Big Ten in three-point percentage and he hoisted only five.

NCAA Basketball: Illinois at Tennessee
Hawkins was 3-10 behind the arc.
Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

The recent three games for the Illini were as tough as any three consecutive games for any team this season, other than Tennessee’s recent nine-day bender against KenPom murderer’s row Purdue (No. 3) and Kansas (No. 11) in Maui and at North Carolina (No. 17).

Tennessee and head coach Rick Barnes lost all three of those contests.

Barnes and his team didn’t play any of the trio of games at home. The fourth game against Illinois was in Knoxville, and that differentiating fact turned the outcome for the Vols.

Syndication: The Knoxville News-Sentinel
Cool pic.
Hannah Mattix/News Sentinel / USA TODAY NETWORK

In the second half, the SEC preseason favorites benefited from some old school home cooking getting to the line more than 30 times, using the charity stripe to amass 52 points in the final 20 minutes.

The free throw disparity evened somewhat, as Terrence Shannon, Jr. got to the line 11 times, making all of his attempts. Officials are great at knowing the tally.

Here’s one example. This call is not only the wrong call, it was made almost two full seconds after the contact.

The whistle wasn’t the determining factor in the loss.

It was objectively not a well-officiated game. Tennessee was in the bonus at the first media timeout of the second half, after the Illini had “fouls to give” late in the first half.

A classic officiating overreaction. Four fouls on Illinois the first 20 minutes. Six fouls on Illinois the first four minutes of the second half.

Underwood said as much postgame. “It was a unique ballgame. I’m not saying anything about the officials, but there’s three fouls in the first half and 426 in the second,” Underwood said.

Syndication: The Knoxville News-Sentinel
Dalton Knecht torched Illinois for 13 points in a 5-minute stretch, aided by shall we say some fortunate free throws.
Hannah Mattix/News Sentinel / USA TODAY NETWORK

TCR’s Noah Cowell has the breakdown of the loss in Knoxville

To be massively clear. The refereeing did not cost Illinois the game. It did not.

Here’s why I say that the ceiling and the floor have been raised for this year’s version of Illinois basketball. More options on the offensive end and more versatility on both ends.

Before everyone gets their panties in a bunch and criticizes this loss at Tennessee as a “at some point” game, let’s look at it for what it was, rather than for what it seemed like.

Tennessee had lost three-straight games to high-major opponents. The Vols were at home. Players were desperate, and fighting for their early-season respect.

Tennessee was also the No. 2 defense overall in KenPom rankings coming into the game, and No. 5 after it.

It’s not an “at some point” game, because Illinois just won that game in back-to-back fashion this very week.

Despite the number of threes taken and who took them, Illinois did not win the game for one simple reason. It didn’t make enough shots.

NCAA Basketball: Illinois at Tennessee
TSJ drives to the bucket for a hoop.
Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

Here’s a snapshot.

  • Shannon: 5-16 (31.3%)
  • Domask: 2-11 (18.2%)
  • Hawkins: 4-13 (30.8%)
  • Trio combined for: 27.5% overall (61.5% of shots, 47.8% of makes)

These three were also 14-15 (93.3%) from the free throw line.

Tennessee’s defense clearly played a factor in the low percentages. However, these three have to make some shots. It’s not all on the defense.

Despite this putrid shooting, Illinois was down five on the road at Tennessee with :15 seconds left and the Vols’ point guard Zakai Zeigler literally fell down out of bounds and a phantom call on Goode ended the contest.

Again, not blaming the referees for the loss.

When that’s the situation you’re in and you shoot this poorly, that’s a statement of its own.

Offensive versatility

Current KenPom Offensive Efficiency Rating: No. 22 (115.4)

Without a gigantic player clogging up the middle of the lane, Illinois can isolate favorable matchups on that end of the court and play at a much faster pace than in some past years.

NCAA Basketball: Illinois at Tennessee
Guerrier flushed a two-hander on a nice pass by TSJ.
Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

Tennessee came out hot in the first half and Illinois was able to not only stay in the game, but have a lead at the break because players like Guerrier and Hawkins are capable of scoring in bunches if the other team’s game plan is to concentrate on limiting Shannon.

Defensive Versatility

Current KenPom Defensive Efficiency Rating: No. 15 (93.1)

The versatility on that end of the court remains overtly apparent. Illinois is capable of defending all over the court as well as any team in the country.

Hawkins’ ability to guard the other team’s five man is a clear separator for Underwood’s team. To that point, the other team’s five has to guard Hawkins on the other end, which further unclogs the lane.

It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Defense has to travel.

Sometimes the ball doesn’t go in. When that happens, as was the case in Knoxville on Saturday, the defense can keep you in the game and give you a chance to win. That was the case on Saturday.

Please take The Scientific Poll.

Poll

Which statement is the most true about Illinois basketball this season?

This poll is closed

  • 6%
    High ceiling, low floor
    (16 votes)
  • 4%
    Low ceiling, high floor
    (10 votes)
  • 35%
    High ceiling, high floor
    (83 votes)
  • 7%
    About the same as it has been
    (18 votes)
  • 46%
    Just make it to the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament already
    (110 votes)
237 votes total Vote Now

This is 7-2. This is a great week. This is time to take it to the next level.

This is Illinois basketball.