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Illinois is an elite defensive team. That can take them far.

Defense wins championships, right?

NCAA Basketball: Illinois at Rutgers Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

After a three-week stretch of buy games and an extended holiday break, the Illini finally got tested again.

Unlike against Marquette, they passed this one with flying colors. The building formerly known as “The RAC” has become a bit of a house of horrors for opposing Big Ten teams in recent years — including Illinois (0-3 in its last three coming in) — but this year’s Illini squad had no trouble at all on Saturday.

So, how were the Illini able to handle Rutgers so easily? It starts on the defensive end, where this group is proving to be a force.

Illinois held Rutgers to a sparkling 0.829 points per possession mark. The beginning of each half set the tone for the contest. The Scarlet Knights scored:

  • 4 points in the game’s first 8 minutes
  • 6 points in the first 10 minutes of the second half

Both stretches coincided with extended Illinois scoring runs that ensured the result of the game was never truly in doubt from the opening tip.

The biggest reason for the Illini’s defensive excellence so far has been their two-point defense. On Saturday, Rutgers shot just 30% from inside the arc (14-47). On the season, Illinois ranks first in the country in two-point field goal defense (36.3%) and effective field goal percentage defense (37.8%).

This especially jumps off the page because that’s where Illinois’ opponents are getting a majority of their looks. A Brad Underwood staple has always been staying connected to shooters on the perimeter and forcing opponents into twos. That’s been no different this season, with opponents attempting just 18.4 threes per game against Illinois — or just 28% of their total shot attempts. That ranks in the top ten nationally.

Additionally, Illinois opponents have just a 30.1% assist rate so far this season, the second lowest mark in the country. That indicates that Illinois has been very sticky off ball, forcing individual ball handlers into tough looks and often taking opponents out of an offensive flow.

All this to say: this Illinois team has been an outstanding defensive basketball team through seven games in 2023.

On paper, this always felt like a roster with a ton of defensive upside. For starters, the backcourt is a matchup nightmare for most teams. Despite all of Ty Rodgers’ faults as a true point guard, having him in the lineup as a long, 6-foot-6 physical defender has been extremely successful. Terrence Shannon Jr. is one of the better defenders in college basketball when he’s locked in and so far this season, he’s largely taken his matchup completely out of the game.

Both of those guys, paired with Justin Harmon off the bench, have been exceptional at the point of attack. They play extremely physical, they’re really good screen navigators and they’re all quick enough laterally despite their size to stay in front of the majority of opposing guards.

The starting frontcourt, when healthy, has played well. Quincy Guerrier has been at a different level on the defensive end than his years at Syracuse and Oregon with his physicality at the starting four spot giving opponents troubles. His work on Oakland’s Trey Townsend — a 15 PPG scorer — in the second half earlier this season particularly stands out.

And of course, Coleman Hawkins being back in the lineup on Saturday was a huge difference-maker. Rutgers all-Big Ten big man Cliff Omoruyi was largely stifled all afternoon, finishing the game with just seven points on 3-for-10 shooting. Hawkins is the most important player for the Illini on the defensive side and the on-off numbers have proven that out across his entire career, doing so once again against the Scarlet Knights (Illinois was a game-high +25 with him on the court).

While the offensive output against Rutgers was encouraging, there’s still going to be obvious flaws on that end throughout the year. If Illinois wants to establish itself as a national contender, it’s going to come from being an elite defensive team.

The pieces are in place and the metrics back them up. Up next, a tilt with an offensive force in Florida Atlantic in the Jimmy V Classic.

Strength vs. strength.

Defense wins championships so they say, and it’ll need to this year for the Illini.