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Can Illinois keep it rolling in Knoxville?

A winning formula is starting to emerge for the Illini early on.

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

The Illinois Fighting Illini men’s basketball team is off to a strong start in the 2023-24 season, with a 7-1 record and a No. 20 ranking in the AP poll. The Illini are coming off a 98-89 win over No. 11 Florida Atlantic on Tuesday, and are preparing to face No. 17 Tennessee on Saturday in a marquee matchup to see if they can stay on a roll.

The Stars Shined Against the Owls

The Illini overcame the Owls, winning 98-89 in a non-conference game on Tuesday at Madison Square Garden. Illinois improved to 7-1 on the season, while Florida Atlantic fell to 7-2.

Illinois had three players score in double figures, led by Marcus Domask and Terrence Shannon, who each had 33 points. Domask also had six rebounds and three assists, while Shannon had two assists and a block. Domask made 15 of 21 shots from the field, including 2 of 6 from three-point range. Shannon made 10 of 14 shots from the field, including 2 of 5 from beyond the arc.

The Illini shot 63% from the field and 40% from three-point range, making 36 of 57 attempts from the floor. After a strong showing on the boards against Rutgers, the Illini found a way to win despite getting edged on the boards by the Owls 28-26. They also finished with had 10 assists on 36 made baskets.

Illinois coach Brad Underwood praised the play of his two veteran stars. “Obviously, those two (Domask and Shannon Jr.) were pretty special tonight,” Illinois coach Brad Underwood said. “Heck of a college basketball game. That was terrific. It’s not often you shoot 63% and you need all of that to win.”

Florida Atlantic was led by Vladislav Goldin, who had 23 points and four rebounds on 10 of 15 shots from the field. Johnell Davis added 19 points, nine rebounds and four assists, while Jalen Gaffney had 10 points and seven assists.

The Owls shot 48.4 percent from the field and 39.1 percent from three-point range, making 9 of 23 attempts. They also shared the ball quite well with 23 assists on 31 made baskets.

Florida Atlantic coach Dusty May continued with praise for the Illini’s stars of the night: “Shannon is one of the most dynamic wings in the country and when we didn’t get our defense set and he had any seams or gaps in transition, he did a great job of attacking and getting downhill and was able to convert. Domask, he was great. Obviously he took advantage of some of the things we typically are OK giving up and he continued to punish us.”

Looking Ahead to the Volunteers

The Illini will face another tough challenge on Saturday, when they travel to Knoxville to take on the Tennessee Volunteers, who are 5-3 and ranked No. 17 in the AP poll. The Volunteers have played a gauntlet of a schedule early on and packed many road games into their early season schedule.

Tennessee boasts a balanced and potent offense, averaging 77.6 points per game, as well as a top-100 defense that allows just 66.9 points per game. The Volunteers have three players averaging double figures in scoring, led by senior guard Dalton Knecht, who averages 19 points and 4.6 assists per game. Other double digit scorers include Josiah-Jordan James that averages 11.4 points and over 42% shooting from deep and Jordan Gainey with 11 points and over 2 assists per contest. Zakai Zeigler will be a primary play maker for the Vols as he leads the team in assists with almost 4 per game.

The Volunteers also have a featured frontcourt player in junior forward Jonas Aidoo, who averages 9.8 points and 7.1 rebounds per game.

Tennessee’s defense is also stingy. In addition to allowing only 66.9 points per game, the Volunteers have held their opponents to 39.7 percent shooting from the field and 31.8 percent shooting from three-point range. They also force over 13 turnovers per game while averaging almost 5 blocks and 7.5 steals.

Illinois will have to play with poise and efficiency against Tennessee as it did in its win over FAU. As always, the Illini will have to minimize turnovers and foul trouble but will also have to match the Volunteers’ intensity and physicality, and try to limit their transition opportunities.

Vols coach Rick Barnes acknowledged the spirit of this matchup ahead of Saturday’s game: “It’ll be interesting. I mean, they’re a hard-nosed, physical team as you would expect. It’s gonna be a hard fought basketball game. (Brad Underwood is a) great basketball coach… great scheme, physicality is gonna be there. I know they’re gonna play extremely hard.”

The stars will have to shine for the Illini once again and rely on Marcus Domask’s accuracy and confidence, Terrence Shannon’s aggressiveness and athleticism, and Coleman Hawkins’ playmaking and versatility.

The game will be a part of the Home-and-Home Hoops series signed in 2022, which is a new initiative that pairs two teams from different conferences for a home-and-home series over two seasons. The Illini will host the Volunteers next season in Champaign. The series is intended to create more exciting and competitive games for the fans and the players.

The game will tip off at 11 a.m. on Saturday. It will be the first meeting between the two teams since 1988, when the Illini defeated the Volunteers 103-79. The Vols lead the all-time series 2-1.