It’s been a difficult week for the Illinois basketball program.
The indefinite suspension of Terrence Shannon Jr. amid rape charges have been hard to process and brought a dark cloud over the Illinois community. A long process awaits, and many questions remain unanswered.
This is a situation that extends far beyond basketball.
There are, however, 14 other players who remain hard-working members of the program and are set to re-start conference play this week likely ranked inside the top-10 nationally. And the fact of the matter is, they’re going to need to adjust to life without their All-American teammate for the foreseeable future.
So, what does that look like for this team?
There’s no need to sugarcoat things. This is a far different basketball team without a two-way superstar averaging 21.7 points per game. Beyond even just the gaudy numbers, Shannon had established himself as the leader of this group and others will now be tasked with stepping into that role.
Friday night’s victory over Fairleigh Dickinson was a great sign for the Illini and proved that the connectivity and chemistry we witnessed with Shannon on the court isn’t changing with his absence.
Nobody would’ve blamed these guys had they come out flat, distracted and perhaps uncomfortable on Friday. Dealing with a situation as unprecedented as the one that’s taken place is extremely difficult. But the response by Illinois was a resounding one and should give Illini fans hope that this team will still carry many of the qualities they’d begun to fall in love with during December.
For Illinois to have success in the Big Ten without Shannon, it’s going to take a complete team effort.
The Illini need to prioritize sharing the ball and playing an unselfish brand of basketball that involves many different playmakers.
For much of the season, the Illini have been an extremely unselfish team offensively and the ball movement we’ve seen has been night and day from a year ago.
Now, they’re going to be without their go-to scorer who’s capable of taking a game over and dominating one-on-one, which places an even greater emphasis on team basketball and an offense predicated on sharing the basketball.
Against FDU, the Illini assisted on 21 of their 36 made field goals and had six players reach double figure scoring totals. That’s the blueprint of operation for this team going forward. Illinois may not have a star player during Shannon’s absence, but they do have a roster full of guys capable of doing damage each night.
Dain Dainja’s 19 points and Justin Harmon’s 18 points showed how many weapons Brad Underwood truly has in his back pocket capable of being unleashed.
The Illini are going to need to fall back on their connectivity and approach games with a committee approach that gets everybody involved early and often. The depth of this roster will continue to show.
Even with a balanced attack though, the Illini are going to need to find their most trusted source of offense late in games.
Somebody needs to become the go-to scoring option in crunch time of close games for the Illini to lean on.
Marcus Domask seems like the most likely candidate, as he’s proven he’s capable of creating his own shot and taking advantage of matchups.
For him, it’s about consistency and whether or not he can operate against longer, more athletic defenders and as more of the focus of opponents’ scouting.
Quincy Guerrier’s recent hot stretch of play has yielding optimism that he could be counted upon for the role as well.
In most people’s eyes, it’s Coleman Hawkins who will draw the pressure, and he could very well prove to be a guy who takes control and declares this “his team” with Shannon no longer in the fold. He’s been in the program the longest and needs to be a leader guys can turn to.
Questions will always remain about whether Coleman can be trusted as a featured scorer but it’s clear he’s capable of making winning plays late in games and we know he’s not going to be afraid to let it fly in any situation.
Over his last four games, he’s shooting 13-for-29 (44.8%) from three and has reached double figures in each contest after failing to do so in his first five. His emergence will be a key for Illinois as they look to navigate big moments without its go-to guy.
Beyond the main cogs of this team though, the Illini are going to need more production from various players to account for the loss of Shannon — especially at the guard spot.
Dra Gibbs-Lawhorn needs to establish himself as a key rotational piece for Illinois to raise its Shannon-less ceiling.
With Sencire Harris redshirting and Nico Morretti’s status battling an injury up in the air, the Illini’s guard depth is going to be tested in the coming weeks.
Outside of Shannon, Gibbs-Lawhorn is the most dynamic player Illinois has on its roster with the ball in his hands and it’s time for him to become a key member of the guard rotation.
He’s got the athletic profile to be a problem for opposing teams on the offensive end and help to replace the shot creation and drive-and-kick ability that Shannon brought so significantly to the team.
It’s clear that Brad Underwood is wary of what Gibbs-Lawhorn can provide the Illini at this stage, but he’s going to have no choice but to give him a longer leash at this point.
His ability to break a defense down off the dribble and score in bunches is something Illinois is going to have to have from the guard spot, even if that’s just for a single game or spurt.
He was a four-star prospect for a reason and despite it coming due to unfortunate circumstances, he’s now going to be afforded the opportunity to truly show what he can do.
It’s up to everybody to prove that Illinois can survive and carve out a path to success amid the loss of its star.