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Down the stretch they come!

It’s time for Underwood to go to the whip.

Rutgers v Illinois Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

Happy Sunday, Illini Nation!

The Minnesota home game was re-scheduled for Monday, Feb. 20 due to COVID-19 protocols, leaving Brad Underwood’s team with a single game on this week’s slate. Yes, it is 2023. I’m not sure how this is still a thing, but I digress.

Elite Illinois defense seems to be a trend on campus, dating back to the fall on the gridiron. Rutgers was held scoreless for 10+ minutes, and that fueled an Illinois run of 19-0, propelling the squad to a much-needed win over No. 24 Rutgers at home.

Coleman Hawkins was the best player on the floor, despite a few obligatory terrible turnovers. More on Hawkins, and his role the remainder of the season later.

As the Fighting Illini tear down the home stretch of 2023 prior to postseason play, let’s detail the known knowns.

Here is one known known.

Ty Rodgers is a rebounding machine.

He’s the best natural rebounder in Champaign since Leron Black. Rodgers will be a walking double-double as soon as next year.

NCAA Basketball: Rutgers at Illinois
Rodgers grabs one of his seven rebounds against visiting Rutgers. His defense, rebounding and energy will be a key to the Illini post-season success.
Ron Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

These are the things that 95% or more reasonable people view as factual.

  1. Illinois will not win not repeat as Big Ten Champions. The 0-3 start in conference play was too overwhelming a hole with juggernaut Purdue and likely NPOY Zach Edey patrolling the paint in Mackey. The team will likely be seeded in the #2 to #5 position. The top four seeds get double byes in the Big Ten Tournament in Chicago (March 8-12).
  2. Illinois will make the NCAA Tournament. It was touch-and-go after the back-to-back Mizzou and Northwestern beatdowns in December. Skyy Clark left the program and Underwood employed wholesale changes on both sides of the ball to give his squad a new identity. Illinois is 8-2 since those changes, and solidly a top-six seed in every bracketology. It is not unreasonable to see the Illini climb to as high as a 3-seed with an ultra strong finish.
  3. Illinois can go to the Final Four and be Big Ten Tournament champions! They could also lose in the first round of both tourneys. The most likely scenario is somewhere in the middle.

Illinois won every other game in a middle-of-the-season stretch, starting with the loss at Maryland to open conference play until the road debacle against Northwestern.

NCAA Basketball: Rutgers at Illinois
Dainja was not an original starter to kick off the season. He has been the biggest surprise of for Underwood.
Ron Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Other than that repulsive seven-game stretch, this Illini squad has largely produced what was expected, albeit unconventionally, and with some different names on the back of the jerseys.

Continued offensive contributions by Dainja will allow Illinois to have a better chance at a few deep postseason tournament runs.

Now, let’s detail the known unknowns.

Here are the things that 95% of the people know that we don’t know.

NCAA Basketball: Rutgers at Illinois
“Good Hawk” showed up for 98% of the Rutgers game. He was equal parts facilitator and scorer, at a nearly perfect ratio, despite the usual perplexing couple of decisions.
Ron Johnson-USA TODAY Sports
  1. What Underwood will get from Hawkins game to game, and even play to play, is the mystery of the universe. Not a single person can predict this. In back-to-back games, The Hawkins experience is equal parts thrilling and maddening, like an unsafe rollercoaster. Hawkins was 0-of-7 from the floor at Iowa (#158 DER), and 8-of-13 at home against Rutgers (#2 DER). Iowa plays brother-in-law defense, and Rutgers is arguably the best on-ball defense in America. One possession he throws the ball off a tuba in the fourth row with a 13-point lead, and the next he throws a skip pass right in the pocket to Matthew Mayer for a corner three.
  2. Finally appearing in a game for the first time all season, sophomore forward Luke Goode entered the game to a Stone Cold Steve Austin pop from the crowd. He didn’t score a point on one three point attempt in his first half action. Goode will likely be fine on the offensive side, but the with identity of the team currently on defense, his ability to move his feet and that bad ankle may be the determining factor in his outright contribution.
  3. Shot selection continues to be a hot topic in Illinois Land. If anyone takes a gander at the nightly box scores for this season for the home team offense, the first thing that jumps out is three-point inefficiency and two-point dominance. The second half against Rutgers saw catch-and-shoot opportunities and the Illini were 4-of-8 (50%) from downtown. In the first half, just 1-of-12 (8.5%) and most of the shots off the dribble/late clock.
NCAA Basketball: Rutgers at Illinois
Terrence Shannon. Jr. goes hard in the paint for an easy second half layup. Shannon and Mayer were both comatose in the first 20 minutes in the win.n
Ron Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Here’s the raw numbers:

  • 2-point shooting: 56.1% (16th);
  • 3-point shooting: 31.5% (297th)

Note: Illinois shoots 42.7% of shots from three (54th most in country)

Against Rutgers specifically, the Illini were 22-of-36 (61.1%) from two. despite Rutgers being 14th in the country in 2-point FG% defense at a measly 44.7%. Illinois can bully the bullies inside the arc and paint. It remains unknown why the players continue to shoot so many threes.

Finally, let’s detail the unknown unknowns. Nobody knows what to expect...positively or negatively.

NCAA Basketball: Rutgers at Illinois
Brad Underwood stretches the outer limits of official Courtney Green and his button-up shirt protesting a call early in the Rutgers game. Is that a schmedium?
Ron Johnson-USA TODAY Sports
  1. Brad Underwood and his staff have ditched the “athleisure” look for a semi-formal aesthetic on gamedays. Underwood originally changed due to poor team performance. As the weather warms, and game frequency increases, will BU and the coaches go back to pullovers and short-sleeved hoodies? Let’s hope so. Underwood looks uncomfortable, and it feels like a forced gesture.
  2. During the terrible seven-game stretch mentioned earlier, team chemistry and socialite status were hot topics of discussion surrounding the program. That has all but outrightly evaporated. As Goode returns and the freshman emerge, it is unknown if The Real Housewives of Champaign will return. Not likely, but still a factor that needs to be considered.
  3. The realized impact of the three freshman — Jayden Epps, Sencire Harris and Rodgers — cannot yet be accurately quantified with their collective, rapid improvement. With eight games in 22 days before the Big Ten tournament starts, the roles of Harris and Rodgers could be drastically different, from a minutes perspective. It’s a well-known known what Harris brings. He’s the pink bunny with the base drum.

Finally, since were going a little more forward thinking and looking ahead to the post-season, if even for a bit, please take my poll.


Who is the single-most important player that determines the Illinois success in the NCAA Tournament?

This poll is closed

  • 8%
    Dain Dainja
    (36 votes)
  • 20%
    Terrence Shannon, Jr.
    (83 votes)
  • 2%
    Jayden Epps
    (12 votes)
  • 19%
    Matthew Mayer
    (77 votes)
  • 48%
    Coleman Hawkins
    (194 votes)
402 votes total Vote Now

This is Illinois basketball.