In an alternate universe, Brad Underwood and Dennis Gates are on opposite sidelines.
In that world, Gates was a four-year letterwinner at Illinois. He and his Chicago Whitney Young teammates Quentin Richardson and Cordell Henry join Sergio McClain, Marcus Griffin, and Frank Williams on the true heir to the Flyin’ Illini.
In that world, Gates doesn’t play at Berkeley. He joins Coach Weber’s staff and is elevated to head coach after Weber’s tenure ends. And he and the Illini go on a Michigan State-like run of tournament runs and appearances.
But we don’t live in that alternative universe. We live in the real world.
And in the real world, Gates’ Tigers got mollywopped by a game Illini squad with revenge on their minds.
Look, it is perfectly okay to revel in the joy of the complete domination Brad Underwood and crew demonstrated in their 97-73 victory lap against the Tigers.
Terrence Shannon Jr. had a 30-point double-double. Quincy Guerrier scored 28 and looked like the stretch four of Underwood’s wildest dreams. Ty Rodgers was a menace on defense and grabbed 9 boards. And AJ Redd hit quite possibly the most beautiful, amazing, poetic ideal of a layup in basketball history.
Now that was a fun 40 minutes of basketball.
But if I may go a level deeper, it showed glimpses of what this team can be on its best days.
Missouri shot 39% from the floor. Illinois won the rebounding matchup 51-35. And the starting five for the Illini did almost all of the damage.
Shannon Jr. truly is a National Player of the Year candidate. He dove on the ground for a loose ball with the Illini up by 30 late in the game. His frenetic efficiency on both ends is a model for future Illini wings. When the Illini inevitably have to hit the portal to replace the experienced core that is propelling this run, this game is a showcase for what a gifted, athletic, two-way wing can do in Underwood’s system.
Marcus Domask’s shot wasn’t falling for most of the game.
It didn’t matter.
Ty Rodgers didn’t look to score at all.
It didn’t matter.
The Illini have the multi-positional versatility that Underwood wanted last year. Only this year, the pieces weren’t forced together. They have consistently made sense together. The starting five has become a cohesive, lethal unit with length, shooting ability, and skill in moving the ball.
The 2023-24 Illini take far better shots than their 2022-23 counterpart. They shot 49% from the field. And while the 33% shooting from behind the arc wasn’t ideal, remember that Domask and Shannon were a combined 2-of-13 from three-point range. That won’t happen regularly.
It’s okay to enjoy this win. It’s special. It’s a vaporization of a hated rival. It’s avenging a humiliating defeat from last season. It’s a mission accomplished.
As conference play looms, Illinois is clearly in the top two of a down Big Ten. Will Michigan State, Ohio State, and Indiana rally to reach their expected levels? Will Nebraska level off?
Those are all unknowns. And I will be scrutinizing those unknowns alongside every one of you. But this win on this night in this rivalry is an unforgettable exclamation point capping the first paragraph of a long season.