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It’s now or never for these Illini

It’s put up or shut up time for Illinois.

NCAA Basketball: Illinois at Indiana Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

The Illini got a nice redemption win Monday night after a late-game fall to Indiana and offensive blitzing by Penn State.

With the win over Minnesota, the Illini are firmly in the mix for the coveted fourth seed in the Big Ten Tournament, which would give them a much-needed double-bye after what’s been a quintessentially rugged and competitive Big Ten season.

It will be no easy task as the Illini have to face the league’s top two teams — Northwestern and Purdue — along with Ohio State and Michigan to end the season. The up and down nature of the Illini this year may be reason to be skeptical of the Illini’s chances, but there may be good reason for hope as the depth, defensive intensity, and shooting have shown through in recent efforts.

The Illini may be trending up at just the right time and give Illini fans a great deal to be excited about over the coming weeks.

Key Takeaways from Recent Action

  • Terrence Shannon’s absence has given other players the opportunity to step up into greater roles.

Matthew Mayer continued his hot shooting ways with 24 points against Indiana and 22 points vs. Minnesota. He’s also made an impact defensively with 5 blocks against the Hoosiers and 15 total rebounds over the last two contests.

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

Underwood knew that Mayer had to be a factor with his leader scorer Shannon sidelined, and he’s continued to deliver in a big way down the stretch for the Illini.

Ty Rodgers has continued to make his presence felt all over the floor with tenacious rebounding and effective playmaking as a strong driver, post presence and interior passer.

Luke Goode has continued to get his legs back as Underwood has gradually gotten him more minutes for shot making ability and defensive effort. Jayden Epps flashed his offensive ability once again with four made threes against the Gophers. If he can become a consistently reliable perimeter scorer that the Illini have sorely needed all season, that changes the trajectory of this Illini team considerably. The number of offensive threats the Illini possess should make them a tough out for the rest of the season.

  • Depth and versatility give the Illini a great chance to find success in the postseason.

While it came against the league-worst Gophers, the box score showed why so many have been high on this Illini team all season. All five starters finished in double figures, including the much maligned RJ Melendez and his well documented shooting struggles. He finished with his career double double including two emphatic dunks that juiced the home Illini crowd.

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

Even more importantly, the Illini had one of their best perimeter shooting efforts of the season finishing with 10 threes on 39% shooting from deep and only had 8 turnovers, much below their season average (13.1).

If the Illini can get this type of offensive balance, smart decision making, and pace control down the stretch, especially once Shannon Jr. is able to return, the Illini will be on another level from most other teams.

  • Shot selection, ball movement, and dribble penetration is critical for this Illini attack.

This Illini team hasn’t shared and assisted as often as teams in the past and that’s been especially true down the stretch. They’ve only had 17 assists over the last two games, below their season average of 13 per contest. Sharing the ball better and limiting the turnovers will be key to getting the Illini better shots and finding consistent answers to the runs that their opponents will go on.

When Epps, Rodgers and Shannon can get in the lane and create for shooters like Hawkins, Goode and Mayer, good things can and will happen for this Illini squad. This floor spacing and interior pressure that the Illini’s spread attack can create is the winning formula for this Illini team.

NCAA Basketball: Illinois at Indiana Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

Their success on this end helps their defense as well allowing them to either get back and set up their half court or apply their chaos inducing full court pressure they’ve employed effectively at times this season.

Reaching the Finish Line

The Illini have tough matchups against Purdue and Northwestern among their final games of the season. Both teams have managed to climb atop the Big Ten due to their ability to dictate pace and limit transition opportunities.

Purdue’s attack on both ends is predicated upon 7-foot-4 big man Zach Edey with his post presence inside and ability to influence or block shots in the lane defensively, while Northwestern does it through a hard-nosed team effort, led by veteran Chase Audige, and dedication to getting back on defense and shutting down driving and passing lanes to limit scoring opportunities.

The Illini’s ability to play ahead of the set defense in transition and steal buckets/possessions with their defense will be critical to pull the upset against both squads.

Especially if Ohio State big man Zed Key continues to be sidelined, the Illini will need to impose their will with their size, length, and pace to take control of this matchup. Making Ohio State play their game and exploiting matchups inside with Dain Dainja will put the Illini in the driver’s seat in this one.

Finally, the Wolverines also stand in pole position along with the Illini for the fourth seed in the Big Ten Tournament. Disrupting big man Hunter Dickinson and wing shooter Jett Howard will be key to neutralizing the Wolverine attack. The Illini’s length inside and speed on both ends of the floor should position them well to take on Michigan’s inside/outside offensive weapons.

The Illini have everything in front of them.

Now it’s up to them to put consistent 40 minute efforts together and play up to their lofty potential.