Revenge is sweet, isn’t it?
That’s what No. 13 Illinois had on its mind on Friday night, one year after getting run out of the gym in the Braggin’ Rights game to the tune of an uncompetitive 22-point loss. This time around, the Illini returned the favor, coming away with a 24-point victory that was dominant from start to finish.
It was pure dominance from start to finish. The Illini imposed their will and the Tigers looked defeated before the first half was over. That hopeless feeling Illinois had at this time last season shifted over to the Missouri bench during this go around.
But avenging last season’s loss, no matter how sweet it was, wasn’t the only takeaway from the 97-73 win over Missouri. It’s time to start taking this team serious, not only as an upper echelon Big Ten and nationally ranked squad but perhaps a true national contender.
They have the makings of a group that nobody is going to want to see down the road.
It starts with their First Team All-American caliber superstar Terrence Shannon Jr. who has taken his game to an entirely new level.
All else equal, when you have the best player on the floor almost every night, you’re going to be pretty successful. And right now, only games against Purdue would challenge that assessment.
Shannon is an unstoppable force in transition, a nightmare to deal with on downhill drives, a long, disruptive perimeter defender, and oh by the way, is hitting 41% of his three-point shots thus far. He’s an alpha that’s capable of carrying Illinois a long way by himself and his effortless 30 points against Missouri are more evidence of that.
To complement him, though, Illinois has built a team around Shannon that is playing at an extremely high level. The pieces fit together, everybody is unselfish and there’s several guys that can hurt you on a given night.
On Friday, it was Quincy Guerrier playing the Robin role to TSJ’s Batman with 28 points and 8 rebounds. After a somewhat slow start, especially with his perimeter shot, Guerrier has been outstanding in his past three games, averaging 21.7 points and 6.7 rebounds while shooting 10-for-18 from three.
Marcus Domask has proven he can be that trusty sidekick when need be — see FAU. We’ve seen Coleman Hawkins step up plenty of times throughout his career and he’s seemingly getting healthier and becoming more of the consistent contributor he was expected to be of late.
For opponents, Shannon will be the primary concern each night, but the Illini’s supporting cast is more than capable of giving him the help he’s going to need.
The size and physicality of this Illinois team can stack up with anybody in college basketball. The Illini have outrebounded their opponent in all but one game this season — the loss at Tennessee — a team that’s been the pinnacle of physical basketball in the country.
Currently, Illinois ranks in the top 40 nationally in both offensive rebounding and defensive rebounding rate. Its 56.8% two-point field goal offense ranks 24th in the country and its 41.2% two-point field goal defense ranks 4th. KenPom ranks the average height of their rotational pieces 11th in Division 1.
The Illini are going to wear the large majority of teams out physically and there’s going to be very few games, if any, where they get outplayed in the paint.
On defense they’re long, they’re switchable and they’re extremely difficult to score on in the halfcourt. Illinois is currently 15th nationally in defensive efficiency and are undoubtedly capable of reaching an even higher mark.
Ty Rodgers and Terrence Shannon on the perimeter are a load for nearly every backcourt and with Coleman Hawkins back and healthy, the Illini should be able to generate plenty of stops. High-level defense paired with high-level rebounding leads to a lot of transition opportunities, where this team is impossible to hold down.
And perhaps the most important factor to consider amidst all the on-court excellence? The vibes in this Illini locker room right now are reaching an all-time high.
"They're playing to win there's no other agendas"#Illini Brad Underwood on his veteran team after blowout win over Mizzou— Bret Beherns (@WCIA3Bret) December 23, 2023
"There's no me, me, me there's none of that...there's no knuckleheads. Everything you could think of you would want in a connected team, right now we have" pic.twitter.com/td5nYKlHyA
It’s clearly a mature and connected group that’s comfortable playing with each other and has pieces that fit together and complement each other perfectly. It’s safe to say Brad Underwood learned some things from a year ago and has immediately applied those lessons.
The concerns are still well documented. Illinois lacks a primary point guard and can be susceptible to some offensive dry spells and turnovers under pressure. It probably won’t ever be a team that makes threes at a particularly high clip.
But the Illini have proven that their talent, experience, physicality and chemistry can overcome those shortcomings. This team is for real.
And it’s time to start treating them as a Final Four threat.