Before the 2022-23 season, Illinois had high hopes.
Head Coach Brad Underwood had finally done what he wanted to do all along:
He trotted out a roster of versatile, switchable, multi-positional wings. He had flexibility on both ends of the floor. He had explosive athletes and “dawgs” who would succeed with grit, hustle, and fight.
It was the perfect storm. The Illini head man went into the portal and landed two of the top transfers in the nation: Texas Tech wing and Chicago native Terrence Shannon Jr. and Baylor forward Matthew Mayer.
The roster was loaded with the versatile Shannon, Luke Goode, RJ Melendez, and Ty Rodgers giving Illinois multiple wing threats. Incoming five-star freshman Skyy Clark was going to run the point with Baylor transfer Dain Dainja and Coleman Hawkins holding down the frontcourt along with Mayer.
It was built to conquer.
Until it didn’t.
There was plenty of rumor and innuendo about the demise of last year’s team. There were whispers of dissension and in-fighting. Stories about punches thrown in practice and dissatisfaction with playing time were the scuttlebutt yet remained publicly unconfirmed.
The team was unceremoniously ousted from the tournament after a roller-coaster regular season.
And the offseason was full of departures. The roster was in flux. The entire Illini world waited on a big-time lead guard to commit to the orange and blue. Much of the focus was on Toledo transfer RayJ Dennis. It was supposedly a done deal.
Until it wasn’t.
With time running out and the portal whipping around at breakneck speeds, Brad Underwood and company zigged instead of zagging.
They didn’t try to recruit stars from outside the program.
They brought their stars back.
Terrence Shannon Jr. has looked every bit the part of a First-Team All-American with POY potential.
The roster had a high floor when Terrence Shannon and Coleman Hawkins decided to run it back. But who would handle the ball? Who would score? What could be done to repair a team that had chemistry issues on the fly?
“Get old, stay old,” a wise man once said.
SIU transfer Marcus Domask came to Champaign an experienced sniper looking to test his mettle at the highest level. In the world’s most famous arena, Domask showed glimpses of what was expected of Matthew Mayer: a versatile, tough, smart offensive player whose skills complement Shannon perfectly.
Quincy Guerrier wasn’t brought to Champaign to be a superstar. He was brought in to bolster a team in need of rebounding. Illinois grabbed 50+ rebounds in four straight games for the first time since the Carter Administration.
Justin Harmon is a Chicago Curie alum who is playing his grad transfer year on the bench of a deep, talented team. His defensive intensity has softened the blow of Sencire Harris redshirting and Jayden Epps departing. He can play late in games on and off the ball. He takes the pressure off Ty Rodgers who still has some struggles from the foul line.
This isn’t the Illini dream team that Underwood tried to build last year. This is a team full of dudes who have been there, done it, and know how to do it again.
No, this isn’t a Final Four prediction column. This is a message to fans that this coaching staff can get out of its own way to construct a roster differently. While the variance of potential for this roster remains wide, this is a team that hasn’t beaten itself.
Saturday in East Tennessee, this motley crew of grizzled young veterans will take the floor against the creamsicle variety of orange. A victory against Rocky Top in the same week of a victory over FAU would intensify the buzz around this team.
It will resonate in the press, in the stands, and on the trail.
And even though he’s coaching at another school now, it will still give us all reason to curse the name of Bruce Pearl.