No one likes someone that says “I told you so.”
So, I won’t do that.
I’ll let my previous writing speak for itself. We’ll get back to my claim below in a minute...
With nearly four decades of Illini fandom in the rearview mirror, heartbreak and heartache course through my veins at a greater rate than red or white blood cells.
It’s all I know. It’s comforting. It’s excruciatingly exhausting.
I’ve been set up and let down so many times, I feel like one of those circular tables that gets rented out for wedding receptions and business galas.
This year’s version of Illinois basketball feels different. Because it is different. Changes in latitude, changes in attitude.
The difference comes from transfer grown men, like Marcus Domask. A basketball savant that using angles, leverage and skill to drop a 33-piece on the head of a Top 10 team on national TV.
He only needed 21 shots.
Quincy Guerrier transferred in from Oregon, after transferring from Syracuse. Guerrier literally had a child born during the season this year. His more than a figurative father, he’s a literal Dad.
He’s also 6-foot-8 and weighs 220 pounds and has more than 1,300 career points. Guerrier only played 17 minutes as a starter because that’s what the team needed. No one noticed, in a good way.
Justin Harmon transferred in from Utah Valley. He was 2-2 from behind the arc and scored in double figures for Underwood off the bench. Harmon figures to be the eight man in the rotation, and will be a key cog in future Illini victories.
The trio combined for 47 points and 10 rebounds, with a combined age in the mid-60s.
Maturity does not always come with age, as Illini fans know from some of the previous transfers Underwood was able to land. Maturity comes in many forms.
I wasn’t in the locker room after the victory. I wasn’t even in the world’s most-famous arena for the game. Not a peep has been made on chemistry, togetherness or culture since this season began with the current roster and last season ended with that roster.
Let’s go back to the picture of Domask banging that three early in the second half. I’ll share it again here for convenience, broken down into three photos.
Focus in on Underwood.
Left on on his left knee. Chin in his right hand. Watching the game.
This is a stark departure from years past, where BU would be seen screaming, yelling and essentially blowing a gasket at every mundane thing that happened.
It’s obvious that the players like each other. It’s obvious that the players play for each other. It’s obvious that Underwood likes his players.
Underwood’s ability to utilize his new roster’s flexibility into the future will directly tie into the success that his team has as the season progresses.
This might be the craziest thing I type all season. I’m 600 words into a column and haven’t mentioned that Terrence Shannon, Jr. scored 33 points of his own, on only 14 shots.
If Rutgers was the coming out party for Shannon, this was the equivalence of a three-day bender. Shannon was 10-14 (71.4%) from the floor, and 11-13 (84.6%) from the line.
He made a few of his patented contested layups late in the shot clock AND got out in transition for a few layups, and-ones and a spectacular dunk in traffic that only took three dribbles to get to the bucket.
Full display of The Terrence Shannon Experience.
Terrence Shannon Jr. tonight:— B/R Hoops (@brhoops) December 6, 2023
◾️ 33 PTS (career-high)
◾️ 10-14 FG
◾️ 11-13 FT
◾️ 2 AST pic.twitter.com/Qz7rjYsPgf
It was a bad night for the Coleman Hawkins Sucks portion of Illinois Land.
Here is the player impact chart, courtesy of Hoop Explorer.
Hawkins had the single-largest impact on the defensive end in the game.
Despite not having a great stat line night on offense, he drew FAU center Vlad Goldin not only away from the bucket but also into foul trouble.
Hawkins and Shannon put on the apron and cooked because of Hawkins’ ability to stretch the defense and keep the lane open all night long.
He also did this...
Illini point guard Ty Rodgers did not have an impressive stat line. That’s not his role.
He played 24 minutes, grabbing five rebounds with three assists and only one turnover. Rogers also had several “hockey assists” in transition to Shannon, and a few to Domask as well. Just another guy playing his role.
Heading into Tennessee on Saturday, Underwood’s squad certainly won’t have the distinct advantage of size and overall athleticism it enjoyed against FAU.
One more thing on Florida Atlantic.
They’re not a fluke.
They will be a top four seed in the upcoming NCAA Tournament in March. Illinois scoring 98 points and nearly winning by double figures can’t mask how skilled the FAU team is, and how well they play together.
Now, back to the task at hand on Saturday.
Tennessee’s Profile (KenPom.com):
- Defensive Efficiency: No. 2 (89.8)
- Offensive Efficiency: No. 32 (114.3)
- KenPom Ranking: No. 9 (+24.45)
This Tennessee team plays faster than the previous versions. At 71.1 possessions a game, Tennessee and head coach Rick Barnes are 82nd in pace of play. Last year, they averaged only 65.1 possessions, and were 288th in pace.
Barnes has benefitted from the transfer portal like Underwood.
Dalton Knecht is averaging 19 points and shooting a robust 39% on threes (5.1 attempts per game). Knecht was the top transfer in the portal last offseason out of Northern Colorado.
He’s been tremendous to start the season, but is dealing with a knee that limited him in Tennessee's previous game against George Mason to only 25 minutes (averages 31.3).
In most ways, these teams are carbon copies of each other, with Tennessee getting the overall edge on the defensive end.
Illinois won’t be able to do whatever they want on the offensive end of the court. It will be a fast-paced game, but it won’t have the point total of the FAU contest.
I mentioned heartache and heartbreak at this beginning of this column. Remember that circular table?
Illinois wins this true road game in a close contest, 74-72. Hawkins has breakout offensive performance and makes four threes to get 17 points.
Please take the scientific poll.
How confident are you in the Illini winning at Tennessee?
This poll is closed
5: It’s a lock
4: They should win
3: They’ll have to play greate to win.
2: Not going to happen.
1: Barring a miracle, the Illini go down in flames.
This is high major basketball. This is togetherness. This is two top-20 wins.
This is Illinois basketball.