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Why this Illinois team is much better than last season’s

We are seeing why these Illini could go deep into March.

NCAA Basketball: Jimmy V Classic-Florida Atlantic at Illinois Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Is it finally the year?

The Fighting Illini continued their strong start to the college basketball season, beating a ranked Florida Atlantic team that returned its entire squad from a Final Four trip last season, 98-89, a bona-fide Quad 1 win. That came after they won at Rutgers for the first time since 2018, having lost 4 of the last 5 in New Jersey. That was a likely also Quad 1 win against a borderline tournament team. Illinois’ only loss so far has come at home against Marquette, who nearly won the Maui invitational.

With a big game coming up at ranked Tennessee later this week, a win would vault Illinois into national championship contention talk.

NCAA Basketball: Jimmy V Classic-Florida Atlantic at Illinois Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

In the preseason, many thought Illinois would be a top 4 team in the Big Ten, but the lack of a good point guard option, as well as some limitations shooting, prevented them from being talked about among national championship contenders. Regardless, the Illini scheduled aggressively, with Marquette, Florida Atlantic, and Tennessee, on top of their annual meeting with Missouri. Even the lower-major teams they’ve scheduled look like tournament teams, including Colgate, Oakland, and Fairleigh Dickinson.

So far, outside of not closing the Marquette game, Illinois has fared very well. Even when they struggled early against Oakland and Valparaiso, they showed they could handle adversity and came back to win both by a big margin.

What makes this team different from last year’s, you ask?

After all, last season’s team also beat two non-conference contenders in UCLA and Texas, but losing a game it failed to close in Virginia. Are Florida Atlantic, Tennessee, and Marquette that much better?

The answer is not that its opponents are better, but rather that this team is playing far more cohesively, has much better chemistry, and is able to cover up its weaknesses much better than last season’s team. And most of that is due to their depth and versatility.

NCAA Basketball: Jimmy V Classic-Florida Atlantic at Illinois Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Both the 2022-23 and 2023-24 teams are elite defensively and on the glass. Looking at numbers from CBB Analytics, with the smaller sample size caveat, this season’s team has a higher offensive rating and lower defensive rating. This season’s team has a higher rebounding percentage and lower turnover percentage. Best of all, this season’s team has a lower three-point attempt rate, indicating they are taking fewer bad threes, and the eye test backs this up; most threes taken Tuesday were in the flow of the offense, unlike many taken last season.

Brad Underwood has gotten this team to connect in a way it never did last season, when they started 0-3 in Big Ten play. It was a lot of isolation, handoffs at the top of the perimeter, trying to take turns to see who could score. Underwood had to change the offense midseason due to Skyy Clark leaving the program and the offensive struggles early in Big Ten play. That won’t be necessary this season. Plus, Underwood showed a great strategy at MSG of taking advantage of the size mismatch between Illinois and FAU. With time, he can beat anybody.

The experience this season’s team has means that the offense is legitimately good, and Illinois can be a great team on both ends of the court. Marcus Domask completely took over, dropping 33 points, getting whatever shot he wanted, but still being able to hit open teammates and play off of Terrence Shannon Jr. Matthew Mayer had high-scoring games last season too, but never seemed to get the rest of the team involved the way Domask has.

NCAA Basketball: Jimmy V Classic-Florida Atlantic at Illinois Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

The team still has flaws; it’s without a true point guard, they aren’t going to shoot lights out from three or the free throw line (though those have improved with every game), and they still turn it over too much. But between high school recruiting and the transfer portal, Brad Underwood has the deepest rotation in the Big Ten, and far more experience than last season’s squad.

A starting lineup of Ty Rodgers, Terrence Shannon Jr, Marcus Domask, Quincy Guerrier, and Coleman Hawkins can switch 1-5, crash the glass, and attack the rim relentlessly, as well as have just enough shooting from outside to keep the defense honest. TSJ is the superstar of course, but Domask and Hawkins can go off at anytime too, while Rodgers and Guerrier play great defense and crash the glass.

Off the bench, if Underwood needs a bucket, he can turn to Dravyn Gibbs-Lawhorn or Dain Dainja. If he needs some floor stretching, he can turn to Luke Goode. If he needs some defense and rebounding down low, he can turn to Amani Hansberry. If he needs someone to initiate the offense, he can turn to Niccolo Moretti. If he needs some perimeter defense, he can turn to Justin Harmon. And they could have been even deeper if Sencire Harris didn’t redshirt and the final scholarship was used.

And just about anyone can play with anyone on this team, giving Brad so many lineup choices. He can go big and play Hawkins and Dainja together. He can go small and put Hawkins at the 5. He can run a 5 out lineup with Domask, Hawkins, Goode, TSJ, and DGL. He can run a punishing unit with Hansberry, Rodgers, and Guerrier on the inside. Imagine how good the defense a lineup of Harmon, Harris, TSJ, Hawkins, and Rodgers would be. Last season’s roster just didn’t have that versatility, or that chemistry due to lack of experience.

Many of these guys now have a year under their belt of playing with each other, and the transfers are all in their fifth year, so they know what it takes to win in college basketball. With their performances so far, improved chemistry, and Shannon ready to be the leader and alpha, Underwood has no excuses to not finish at the top of the Big Ten and finally make the Sweet 16.