clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile
NCAA Basketball: Oakland at Illinois
Underwood turning the right screws in 2023, with a thought on 2024.
Ron Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Filed under:

Brad Underwood’s stocking is finally full of solutions

March will be more merry than Christmas this basketball season in Champaign.

Merry Christmas, Illinois Land!

Pounding Missouri into submission during the annual Braggin’ Rights game never gets old. That was especially true this holiday season, as Illinois and Brad Underwood came off a 22-point defeat (biggest loss in series history) in last year’s contest.

Here’s my colleague, Pleas Honeywood, breaking down that comprehensive ass whooping over Mizzou in St. Louis. Quincy Guerrier just made another left corner three.

When I say that Underwood has a stocking full of solutions this Christmas, it’s not just a figure of speech. It is reality.

Here are problems that Underwood solved for his squad since getting beaten by Arkansas in 2023 NCAA Tournament.

  • Accountability through Leadership: I chose this phrase instead of character. I don’t know the players who departed after last season. I can’t speak to their character, but I can speak to the accountability of the team and culture through dynamic leadership from the returning players. This is particularly apparent with Terrence Shannon, Jr. and Coleman Hawkins.

Underwood basically couldn’t say enough nice things about his squad after the win over Mizzou. He said there was no agenda “other than winning.”

OUT: Mayer, Jayden Epps, Skyy Clark, RJ Melendez, Brandon Lieb (bench). The other four of this group started multiple games.

IN: Quincy Guerrier, Marcus Domask, Justin Harmon, Amani Hansberry/Dra Gibbs-Lawhorn (Freshmen). Guerrier and Domask start and play nearly 30 minutes a night.

NCAA Basketball: Jimmy V Classic-Florida Atlantic at Illinois
Dynamic Duo. Truly a Batman & Robin. Hawkins just wants to win. He plays his role nightly. Shannon knows the Bat Signal is for him. That’s his role.
Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports
  • Depth: Not a lot of guys who can play, but a lot of guys who can play and do a lot of things extremely well. Dain Dainja is capable of 13 and 8 in the Big Ten. He barely sees the floor. Some of that is ball screen defense, or lack thereof. Most of it is you simply can’t take Hawkins off the court and Dainja and Hawkins don’t play well together, dating back to last season.

The only gripe here is Luke Goode should get more tick. The question remains...who do you take out of the game? It’s not as simple as you may think.

NCAA Basketball: Western Illinois at Illinois
Goode is shooting 44.4% from behind the arc and has a PER of 16.0 for the season. He is averaging 20.5 minutes per game.
Ron Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Freshmen Amani Hansberry and Dra Gibbs-Lawhorn should not be stuck on the bench. Point No. 2 for the depth of the Top Eight.

Transfer Justin Harmon is the clear No. 8 guy in the rotation. He averaged 19.7 points at Utah Valley last season. Harmon is at 15.4 minutes a contest. This may dwindle to around 12 minutes as the season progresses, in favor of Goode and his floor-stretching ability.

  • Versatility: Illinois is top-21 in KenPom DER and OER. The only other teams in the top-21 for both metrics: No. 1 Houston, No. 2 Purdue, No. 3 Arizona, No. 4 BYU and No. 10 Auburn. Five other teams have the versatility to be able to score and guard on equal footing, at a nationally high level. Underwood has reconfigured the roster and his philosophy.

Underwood remains matchup heavy on offense (booty ball) and demanded that Shannon hit his head on the rim in transition without exception.

Guerrier finished with a career high 28 points, to go along with eight boards. This is the second time QG scored above 20 against a high-major opponent away from Champaign.

Guerrier scored 22 in the loss to Tennessee in Knoxville earlier this month.

Here’s what he did in a career night in Braggin’ Rights.

Terrence Shannon, Jr. has emerged as not only an essential lock to be a First-Team Consensus All-American; he’s stamped his name on the ballot for National Player of the Year.

Another issue that BU solved this season: A CLEAR TOP GUY.

Much like the Big Ten race for 2023-24, this race is far from over. They’ve barely crossed the starting line.

That is not a typo, and is not put in print without due diligence.

Here’s a clean look at Shannon’s night in the STL.

Shannon would have flirted with 40 had he made his usual allocation of free throws at the normal clip. TSJ was only 10-of-16 and missed a front end of a one-and-one in the first half.

Shannon for the season (National Player of the Year frontrunner Zach Edey in parentheses):

  • PPG: 21.7 PPG (24.0)
  • Rebounds: 4.5 (10.4)
  • Assists: 2.5 (1.6)
  • 3P%: 40.8% (N/A)
  • eFG%: 61.6 (62.0%)
  • Free Throws: 77.1% (76.7%)
  • Player Efficiency Rating (PER): 27.2 (38.6)

Shannon remains the top defensive stopper for Illinois this deep into his fifth year. He’s not good, or even great.

TSJ is ELITE on both ends of the court.

Colgate v Illinois
A one man fast break with speed rivaling Dee Brown, size eclipsing Ayo Donsumo and strength bettering Nick Anderson. The Total Package.
Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

For my money, Shannon is the best Illinois basketball player since the team played in the 1989 Final Four in Seattle, and maybe that’s not far back enough.

Before we get into the upcoming NCAA Tournament in March, let’s take a look back to see how far Underwood and his squad has come in one short year.

The well-documented struggles of last December are so far in the side view mirror, images are further away than they appear.

One year ago today: Illinois had no leadership, and thus, no consistency. Between Clark, Mayer, Fartgate and BodyLanguageGate, the Illini had nearly as many “scandals” off the court as wins on it.

Illinois v Arkansas
Never a dull moment with Matthew Mayer on the court and in the locker room. He was an all-time polarizing figure in the history of the program, despite playing only one season for Illinois.
Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images

The team sat at a disappointing 8-4, and lost three of its last five contests, with a thrilling OT win at MSG against No. 2 Texas.

In the first game of 2023, Illinois was embarrassed by rival Northwestern in Evanston, 73-60.

The Illini were 0-3 in Big Ten play, and Skyy Clark had already exited the program.

When you recap what the team was going through in December 2022, it feels like it was a decade ago, not a single calendar year.

The Illini are getting love from a national perspective, with some guys at three-letter networks ranking Illinois in the top five of their subjective polls.

What a difference a year makes.

As of typing this, we are exactly 12 weeks...just 84 days away from Selection Sunday. ESPN Bracketologist Joe Lunardi has Illinois as a No. 3 seed. Not a bad spot to be in.

What does that really mean, in the grand scheme? Not much, and yet, everything.

Rising to that height despite a pair of losses to Marquette and Tennessee means that Illinois is now firmly entrenched in the national conversation.

This would be Underwood’s third Top-4 seed in the last four NCAA Tournaments.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament Second Round-Houston vs Illinois
Kofi getting absolutely murdered in a game. Probably wasn’t called.
Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

The reason that feels different — and is different — is that Illinois is not relying on a gigantic immovable force in the defensive lane clogging up the opposition.

Nor is the entirety of the offensive framework to have four guys stand and watch while the entire other team’s defense collapses and fouls the center, with hardly any of the infractions whistled.

For the first time in forever, I’m not concerned about “the draw” that Illinois gets in the NCAAT.

NCAA Basketball: Colgate at Illinois
Hawkins is heating up from three. His knee looks healthy...finally.
Ron Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

They match up with anyone in the country, whether offensively or defensively.

Here are the three keys for Illinois to move up the seed lines and into the Final Four...or beyond.

  • Keep Shannon healthy and fresh as much as possible. He’s at 33.0 minutes right now.
NCAA Basketball: Jimmy V Classic-Florida Atlantic at Illinois
The last time Domask made multiple threes in a game was his MSG Masterpiece against FAU.
Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports
  • Get Domask going from three. He is currently at 19.6% for the season on 4.6 attempts a game. If he starts shooting more in line with his career 34.3% clip on his over 500 career attempts, Illinois will border on unguardable. He is only 4-of-26 (15.3%) over his last five games.
  • Get the right guys to the line more often. Illinois is a mere 261st in the country on percent of points from the line at only 16.9% for the year. Shannon, Domask and Hawkins need to live there moving forward.

Please take The Scientific Poll.

Poll

How confident are you in Illinois making a run in the NCAA Tournament?

This poll is closed

  • 1%
    Out in the first round.
    (7 votes)
  • 8%
    They’ll probably lose in the second round again.
    (38 votes)
  • 56%
    Sweet 16
    (270 votes)
  • 16%
    Final Four
    (76 votes)
  • 17%
    Can contend for a Natty
    (84 votes)
475 votes total Vote Now

This is Merry Christmas. This is Merry March. This is Merry and Bright.

This is Illinois basketball.