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NCAA Basketball: Illinois at Rutgers
TSJ. Big Ten POY.
Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

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Brad Underwood has his best team at Illinois right now

It’s go-time for BU in C-U with TSJ and Co.

Happy Sunday, Illinois Land!

The toothpaste is out of the tube. There’s no going back now.

Before I unpack why this is Brad Underwood’s best team since arriving in Champaign seven years ago, let’s take a look at the absolute beatdown of Rutgers in Piscataway to open Big Ten play with a road victory for the second time since 2011.

Noah Cowell has the particulars on that comprehensive ass kicking in Piscataway.

It’s worth mentioning that this would have been embarrassingly non-competitive if the Big Ten officials assigned to Saturday’s contest didn’t take matters into their own hands the last eight minutes of the first half.

Even with the lopsided whistle, this game was never really in doubt three minutes after halftime.

But, I digress...

Underwood finally has a true alpha on both ends of the floor. Shannon has gotten much better on offense and at shooting. You’ll be surprised how much better.

WIth the return of Coleman Hawkins to the starting lineup after a two-week hiatus with knee tendonitis, Illinois offers the complete team package, centered around First-Team All-American Terrence Shannon, Jr.

Shannon is clearly the best player. Hawkins is clearly the most important player. We’ll get to Hawkins in a second.

That seems like contradictory hyperbole. It’s not. Let me tell you why.

Shannon is now a legitimate three-point threat. Look at the numbers, don’t take my word for it.
TCR // Jack Jungmann

TSJ is the best Illinois basketball player since Dee Brown and Deron Williams roamed the court at then Assembly Hall. He can get 20 on anyone, any night in any venue. Shannon is clearly the number one option on offense.

With a Player Efficiency Rating (PER) of a mind-blowing 27.0, Shannon is rarified air.

PER takes into account every measurable statistical metric and how well you do it when you’re on the court.

Here’s some PERs at Illinois by year:

  • Kofi Cockburn (2020-22) : 25.8, 31.5 and 32.1 (average of 29.8)
  • Ayo Dosunmu (2019-21): 16.9, 19.8 and 24.0 (average of 20.2)
  • Malcom Hill (2014-17): 13.2, 21.1, 22.5 and 22.2 (average of 20.9)
  • Rayvonte Rice (2014-15): 22.3 and 28.9...yeah he was pretty good

Shannon is now not only a competent shooter from behind the arc; he’s bordering on the “E Word” from downtown.

Here’s a breakdown of Shannon from three land:

  • This season, he’s shooting 42.9% from three: That’s an accuracy IMPROVEMENT of 42.6% over last year, where he shot a below-average 32.1%.
  • Usage increased by 38%: from 5.0 threes per game a year ago to 6.9 so far in 2023.
  • Total efficiency from three per game increased by 28.8%: from 1.04 points per shot last year to 1.34 points per shot this year.
  • Shannon averages 9.3 points per game from threes alone: He’s getting 46.5% of his points from long range.

Here is why it matters that Shannon is draining the long ball.

Teams can no longer go under ball screens and dare him to shoot. He will. He will also make it.

No guard at this level can guard Shannon going downhill to the bucket. If you trail him on ball screens to eliminate the three, he becomes even more lethal.

NCAA Basketball: Illinois at Rutgers
TSJ knifes through the defense and scores a bucket against Omoruyi. Pick your poison.
Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

It’s not only a quandary for opposing coaches and teams, it’s an impossibility.

He is averaging exactly 20.0 PPG this season. By the way, his 2-point percentage has also increased by 4.1% year over year (from 53.4% to 57.5%).

If Shannon can keep this pace into January, I’ll have no choice but to slap the “Elite Shooter” label on the Illinois guard.

TSJ guards the No. 1 priority on the defensive scouting report every night (unless the opponent is Purdue with 7-foot-4 Zach Edey).

Sick photo here by TCR photog Craig Pessman. Look how high Shannon is during this play.
TCR // Craig Pessman

He is averaging 31.3 minutes per game. A total workhorse in every sense of the word.

Barring injury or amnesia, Shannon will be a First-Team All-American player in 2023-24. That would be Underwood’s third All-American. Not too bad.

Here is why Hawkins is the most important player.

NCAA Basketball: Illinois at Rutgers
Hawkins takes a charge against Rutgers center Cliff Omoruyi late in the second half. Omoruyi had seven points on 3-10 shooting.
Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

The Sacramento native has a PER of only 7.9 so far this season. This will improve as shots start to fall. With his injury absence and playing at less than 100% before that, you would expect a regression to the mean in the neighborhood of his career 14.9 in this metric.

Hawkins is being asked to do two things by Underwood that are extremely difficult:

  1. Guard the opposing five man on defense: At 6-foot-10 and billed at 230 pounds, Hawkins doesn’t have the girth and/or strength to physically impose his will. He uses angles and length to guard ball screens as well as anyone in the country.
  2. Direct/Run/Initiate the offense without having the ball as the primary ball handler: Hawkins will not only communicate the plays from Underwood on the bench, he will call his own audibles on the fly. Next time you watch a game, notice how many times Hawkins is telling others where to go and what to do before, during or after a play.

Hawkins has the ball in his hands in the middle of the court frequently. He’s arguably the best passer and the worst decision maker.

The deadliest combo possible. Whichever direction Hawkins goes...Illinois goes.

NCAA Basketball: Illinois at Rutgers
Hawkins flips in a layup in the paint.
Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

Hawkins remains the only big man on the roster who can guard ball screens at an elite level.

Underwood often mentions freshman Amani Hansberry as a ball screen defender. I think he’s just being nice, for lack of a better term.

Illinois is at another level defensively with Hawkins on the floor, and the offense runs better and the ball movement drastically improves with him at the five.

The rest of the roster could be labeled as role players. I would say Underwood has skilled role players. Players are just playing roles, and they’re doing so at a high level.

Here’s what BU is working with in addition to TSJ and Hawk.

The starters

Ty Rodgers (PER of 14.6): The starting “point guard.” Although not a great passer or facilitator, his sheer size, strength and athleticism make him a defensive master and make it impossible for the opposing defense to not take notice of where he is on the court at all times.

Marcus Domask (PER of 10.0, career 19.4): Can give you 18 and 6 against top-5 Marquette, or he can be quiet as a church mouse and do his job. He is the situational master. Eats minutes because he’s sound on both ends and never in foul trouble. His shooting will improve from 24.1% behind the arc. He’s a career 35.9% shooter from long range.

Quincy Guerrier (PER of 13.6): In his third Power 5 school in a long career, Guerrier has the skill and size to be a fringe NBA player. He has picked it up on the defensive end, becoming a borderline elite shot blocker and rebounder.

The starting five is well-built. For a deep March run, a primary ball handler will have to either emerge from bench, or transition to Shannon. I’m betting on the latter.

The Bench

The two main contributors off the bench are Luke Goode and Dain Dainja.

Goode (PER of 17.6) is a sharp-shooting wing who is better than average on defense. He pairs well with Domask on the opposite wing. Goode operates mostly behind the arc and 15+ feet from the basket and is a true floor spacer.

Goode is shooting 45.3% from three, the best in the Big Ten. Underwood has to be careful playing Goode and Rodgers together for extended minutes, as neither possess lead guard qualities with the ball.

They pair well, however, as Rodgers likes to push the pace and Goode is excellent in transition.

Underwood with a solid dark navy/black bombo on the sideline. He’s calmed down a lot this year, and for good reason.
TCR // Craig Pessman

Dainja (PER of 28.9) is an efficient big man that struggles mightily in ball screen defense. With these efficiency numbers, you’d expect him to get more tick. I would argue the opposite. These efficiency numbers are through the roof because Underwood found the secret sauce.

Transfer Justin Harmon will likely be man No. 8 in the rotation as the season progresses. It’s hard to play more guys than that.

Freshmen Dra Gibbs-Lawhorn, Niccolo Moretti and Amani Hansberry are a year away from contributing at a high level.

This is best we’ve seen in a while. This is Underwood’s best team. This is getting older.

This is Illinois basketball.