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Illinois is finding a balance, but shooting is still an issue

Top to bottom, Illinois’ entire roster came through to deliver a win Tuesday night.

NCAA Basketball: Nebraska at Illinois Ron Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

The Illinois Fighting Illini didn’t take the bait in a classic trap game against the Nebraska Cornhuskers as they defended the State Farm Center yet again Tuesday night. Now at 16-6 (7-4 Big Ten), the Illini are in great position with about a month to go until the NCAA Tournament.

One of the main strengths of this Illini team, at least compared to the two previous iterations, is its versatility and balance. Last year’s Illini team often only went as far as Kofi Cockburn could take them, and the team didn’t have an answer when Cockburn either wasn’t playing or was shut down by another athletic big man. Similarly, the 2020-21 team was bailed out repeatedly by Ayo Dosunmu’s legendary late game heroics.

But this year’s team isn’t quite like its predecessors, and that fact was on full display against the Huskers.

Matthew Mayer and Terrence Shannon are the main offensive engines of the team right now, but neither were scoring at a sufficient rate to win the game single-handedly, despite the two of them being the team’s leading scorers.

So it fell to each of the other players using their unique skills and abilities to push the team forward, starting with Coleman Hawkins. Though he only managed 10 points on the night, he came the closest on the team to earning a double-double by pairing his scoring with 8 rebounds. His length and athleticism not only help on the glass, but also make moves like this one in the paint incredibly difficult to defend against.

Hawkins also earned 3 assists on the night, which tied Jayden Epps for second-most on the team. It takes elite vision to see this play develop and feed Dain Dainja for the bucket in the paint.

Speaking of Dain, he made his presence felt despite scoring only 4 points. He also grabbed 5 rebounds on the defensive glass and blocked a shot. Even if he isn’t scoring, Dainja’s post presence both offensively and defensively will be critical for the team going forward.

And although RJ Melendez had a tough night offensively, he still played 15 solid minutes of defense while only committing a single foul and not turning the ball over. The pair of charges that he took also demonstrate his value on the defensive end. You gotta think his shot will eventually start to fall; he just needs to keep getting minutes and taking shots to get out of his current funk.

All three freshmen who saw time were not only crucial to pulling out the win, but they also showed why they’re indispensable elements of the program’s future. Jayden Epps led the way offensively with 12 points, and created openings for his teammates with 3 assists.

Epps’ classmate Ty Rodgers had one of his best all-around performances of the year with 7 points and 7 rebounds (6 of which were offensive boards) to go along with lock-down defense.

All three of the freshmen are already playing with maturity and poise to go along with their as-advertised offensive abilities. Sencire Harris demonstrated that clearly with his awareness and speed on offense, defense, and in transition.

The Illini have some of their toughest games yet still ahead of them, not to mention the challenge of the Big Ten Tournament. But this team’s resiliency is a very encouraging sign.

The Illini only shot 17.2% from three on the night while none of the veterans were breaking out into dominant performances, and it didn’t matter at all. The entire Illini roster played strong defense to shut down a Nebraska team for the second time.

This is Fred Hoiberg’s same team that took No. 1 Purdue to overtime earlier this year.

Illinois will win plenty of games going forward by playing this brand of balanced basketball, and I’m excited to see what the future holds.