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Illinois is gaining some national respect

An up-and-down week for the Illini.

NCAA Basketball: Illinois at Tennessee Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

TCR Contributor CJ Jackson is a former member of the Illinois Basketball team, playing for the Illini from 2005-09.

First off, what a great week for Illini Basketball. A chance to be ranked in the top-20 and then go up against two teams ranked higher at No. 11 and No. 17 is rare and exciting. This is what NCAA basketball is all about. To add some more excitement is playing in Madison Square Garden, which is one of basketball’s most prized arenas. If we couldn’t get up for this past week, then I don’t know what would get us there.

Speaking on the games now, the season is always one with both highs and lows. Unfortunately for us, we saw both in the same week.

The Up:

Beating No. 11 Florida Atlantic was soooooo fun to watch. There were moments where you saw an Illini team that could legitimately compete for a Final Four run.

We saw both Terrence Shannon Jr. and Marcus Domask each hit career-highs of 33 points each against a solid defensive team. We saw how fast and efficient Illinois can score the ball.

Illinois ended the game shooting 63% from the field and even put up 43 points over just 14 minutes during a second-half stretch. Knowing that we have that type of ‘scorability’ both from an individual and a team standpoint is comforting, especially knowing how much high-scoring teams dominate college basketball today.

The Down:

To call the loss to Tennessee a “down” is a bit unfair. Tennessee is a damn good team. Well, balanced.

They have smart savvy guards and some tall and athletic bigs inside. They were a hard team to match up with. Hence, why we could never quite get over the hump. However, I still feel like it was our game to lose.

It felt like we “allowed” them to stay in the game vs. them outright beating us. There was a stretch where they went on a 15-5 run over about five minutes and that is really what separated them down the stretch.

The biggest thing that hurt us against Tennessee is that we lost the rebound battle. This is very much unlike us as we’re one the best rebounding teams in the nation. We’re No. 4 in the nation in defensive rebounds per game. We lost the rebound battle against Tennessee 43-32 and only had 22 defensive rebounds, which is 10 below our per game average.

There’s the difference.

Now what?

Hats off to them, but if we want to compete in conference play this year AND in March, we have to pony up and hit on most, if not, all cylinders. Given how much an aggressive inside presence bothered us, we HAVE to focus on that now instead of later. Coleman Hawkins and Quincy Guerrier are a great inside duo against a small ball team that doesn’t have a dominate inside presence. We know that won’t be the case in the Big Ten against the likes of Edey at Purdue, etc.

We have to find a way to work Dainja in a bit more so when other teams go big boy ball we can too. Coleman at the 4 is going to be more his prolific role and I think that’s where he’s more comfortable at. When he has to guard the inside as he did this past week, it’s tough. He’s great coming for weakside blocks and rebounds. If Dainja is guarding the 5, Coleman will have more liberty to roam defensively.

All in all, we should be proud of the week we had.

Of course we would have liked to come out with two top-20 wins and have a sure chance to be top-10, but we have a ton of great basketball ahead of us. Even with the loss we improved our ranking to No. 16, which lets us know that we’re gaining more respect with each passing week.

Domask having a career night will only give him confidence in big games. Gurrier shot the ball well against Tennessee and was a force inside and out. These are signs of overall team growth. This shows how all the depth we’ve been raving about is showing up. TSJ is remaining consistent as a top threat and with everyone else confidently knowing their night could be any night, we’ll be solid!

Our only two losses come against two teams who are currently top-10 and they were both close and very winnable games. So buckle up and keep hopes high. This will be one of the better Illini teams of late.