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Terrence Shannon has become the superstar Illinois needs

TSJ has truly taken his game to another level.

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

One of the best players in college basketball resides in Champaign, Illinois.

That’s a statement that’s been true quite often in recent years, believe it or not.

It was true of Ayo Dosunmu. It was true of Kofi Cockburn. And it’s now true again, this time in the name of Terrence Shannon Jr.

Shannon has turned himself into one of the country’s most complete players and Illinois is reaping the rewards. The Illini’s 8-2 start to the season has been driven by their superstar and the increased expectations starting to be attached to this group are directly correlated with Shannon taking his game to another level.

Sunday’s game against Colgate had trap game written all over it. A formidable mid-major, one who’s been to the NCAA Tournament each of the last three seasons comes into Champaign after a full week off during finals. Last season in a similar spot, Illinois trailed Alabama A&M (who went on to go 15-18) with under ten minutes to play.

Not to worry. The Illini had full control of the Red Raiders from the opening tip, jumping out to a 14-0 leading and never trailing — or even letting their lead get under nine points — the rest of the way. The catalyst was none other than Terrence Shannon who put up 14 first half points and five blocks to ensure Illinois wouldn’t get lulled into the trap.

As has been the case all season, he did it in the variety of ways — attacking the rim, getting to the free throw line, knocking down shots and of course, remaining an absolute force in transition.

That type of assertiveness is what Illinois needs from its star. In seemingly every game this season, Shannon has made his presence known early and hasn’t been afraid to put the team on his back for stretches.

For him, it’s been all about that classic sports buzz word: consistency. His 14-point afternoon in the win over Colgate was actually his season-low, that’s how good he’s been. There’s been struggles — last Saturday’s performance at Tennessee comes to mind — but through typical ups and downs Shannon has found his way to productivity every game.

His 20.9 points per game bears that out. That figure ranks in the Top 10 among high major players and second in the Big Ten trailing only the reigning National Player of the Year Zach Edey. And boy, if he shoots it anywhere near his current 42% mark from three all season, there may not be a player in America that can stop him.

The best of the best don’t just do it on one end, though. Shannon has also made an enormous impact on the defensive end, becoming a true two-way player that can take on the toughest of assignments.

Here’s a list of some of the top scoring options Shannon has guarded this season:

  • Jack Gohlke, Oakland: 6 Points, season-low 6 3PA
  • Isaiah Stafford, Valparaiso 7 second half points (after 23 on Illini’s other guards in the first)
  • Noah Fernandes, Rutgers: 3 points
  • Alijah Martin, Florida Atlantic: 13 points, 33% FG
  • Braeden Smith, Colgate: 2 points

Of course, fellow star players like Tyler Kolek, Kam Jones and Dalton Knecht will get theirs from time to time. But for the most part, along with his offensive dominance, Shannon can basically eliminate some of the best opposing scorers on the other end. Only the elite players can do both, and Shannon is one of them.

This play from Sunday really says all that needs to be said.

He’s become a true alpha. A go-to scorer, a defensive ace, a “you go, we go” type. A leader.

That last part is particularly important. Shannon admitted this offseason that he was uncomfortable at times in a leadership role last season and could’ve done a lot more. We all remember Brad Underwood’s infamous fart noise around this time last year.

It was all new to him. Coming from Texas Tech where he spent three seasons mainly as a role player alongside others who took on the majority of the lead, Shannon had never been in a position to lead a team. And let’s face it — last year’s group wasn’t exactly smooth sailing and drama-free.

This season, with a year of experience and with a bunch of veterans around him, Shannon has turned himself into the leader Illinois needs. He’s more vocal and more confident in who he is. It’s obvious when the team takes the court that everybody is following number zero.

Assuming he stays on his current pace — or even just somewhat close to it — he’ll almost certainly have All-American honors coming his way and put together one of the better single seasons in Illinois program history. He’s the blueprint all borderline NBA draftees should follow when it comes to returning to school and using that year to rise to a completely different level.

As Big Ten play nears, the Illini are going to need everything Shannon brings. He’s the engine that makes everything go and this team is going to ride him as far as he can take them. The grind of a long season will challenge him at times but based on the guy we’re all watching right now, Illini fans should have confidence he’ll rise to the occasion.

Superstars win in college basketball, and Illinois has one.