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3 things we know about Illinois right now

Have the Illini found a winning formula?

Syndication: HawkCentral Joseph Cress/Iowa City Press-Citizen / USA TODAY NETWORK

With President Biden’s State of the Union happening Tuesday night — and the Illini being over the halfway mark of the regular season — it’s fitting to reflect on where the Illini have been and where they may go with 8 games remaining in the regular season.

Despite the tough loss on the road to the Hawkeyes, the Illini have been more consistent in their effort on both ends of the floor and generally put themselves in the position to win as their offensive flow and defensive connectivity have helped lead them to a 7-2 mark in their last 9 games after starting 0-3 to begin conference play.

The margin of error is especially thin in the league this year, as evidenced by 10 of the 14 teams in the conference having between 5 and 7 wins. This parity should make things interesting for Big Ten fans coming down the stretch to determine final seeding in the Big Ten and NCAA Tournaments.

What We’ve Learned so Far

  • Head Coach Brad Underwood has kept with his tradition of major schematic in season adjustments.

For those following the Illini closely this season, it’s no mystery why they got off to that ugly 0-3 start. Frequent turnovers, foul issues, large free throw disparities, and little to no offensive flow have made some games hard for Illini fans to watch.

How did Underwood respond?

Significant adjustments on both ends of the floor.

Defensively, the Illini have abandoned their switch everything approach and reverted to a more traditional hedge and recover strategy on pick and rolls, especially as Dainja has seen more minutes as a starter. This change has helped the Illini more effectively and quickly cut off driving and passing lanes to the basket by better keeping the ball in front as a unit and making teams pass and shoot over the significant length the Illini possess across the board.

Offensively, the Illini moved away from the stagnant five out approach in favor of a spread offense with more wing cutting and passing to the middle to generate better looks. The spread has helped the Illini maximize their collective skillset by opening lanes for athletic drivers like Shannon and Epps to get downhill going to the basket and making for better shots for shooters like Mayer from the wing.

These strategic changes have kept the Illini in the mix at the top half of the conference standings.

  • The Illini have gotten clarity with their personnel grouping and rotations.

When lead guard Skyy Clark abruptly left the program in early January, it appeared to be a major cause for concern as he was among the team leaders in minutes and was expected to play a major role in helping the Illini defend their Big Ten title this season.

However, with his absence, the other freshmen have had opportunities to get more minutes and really shine in their respective roles.

Sencire Harris has received starters minutes for his dogged defensive effort and ability to secure extra possessions for the Illini on that end. Ty Rodgers predicates his game on a similar hard nosed, defensive driven approach but has also found some scoring as of late, finishing with 13 points, 13 rebounds, and 4 steals over the last 2 games. He’s been glue, a do-it-all guy for Underwood this season, and there’s a lot to like about his game as he continues to develop.

Lastly, Jayden Epps has gone from microwave scorer off the bench to lead scoring guard since Clark left the program. He had a breakout performance against the Hawkeyes (16 points and 5 assists) and looks to be the key to the Illini’s basketball future with his 3 level scoring ability and flashes of playmaking for others.

On the flip side, RJ Melendez has seen his minutes decreased as of late with only a combined 30 minutes over the last two games, as he’s continued to struggle offensively this season (36% from the field, 24% from three).

While Coleman Hawkins has moments of brilliance like his 20-point outburst against Wisconsin, he has yet to be the reliable double digit scorer the Illini were hoping for. The biggest area of concern for the Illini offensively has been their woeful perimeter shooting, as anyone not named Matthew Meyer has struggled to shoot it from deep.

Hopefully, with the return of Luke Goode, the Illini will start to see an uptick in their perimeter shooting which badly needs an upgrade sitting at below 32% on the season.

  • The transfers have really made their mark.

Terrence Shannon Jr. has brought elite speed and transition offense and been the most steady presence for this Illini team at both ends of the floor. He leads the Illini in scoring and steals and finishes third on the team in rebounding and second in assists. Underwood needed a lead wing and found him in Shannon.

While Matthew Mayer really struggled to find his way early on in the season, this latest stretch of games has quickly reminded fans why he was so hotly pursued in the transfer portal last offseason. He’s finished with 15 or more points in 5 of the last 7 games including a 4 of 6 effort from 3 against the Hawkeyes. He’s the Illini’s most reliable perimeter shooter at almost 39% on the season, but he’s also brought impactful rebounding (4th on the team) and shot blocking (2nd on the team) that have really helped turn the tide of the Illini.

Dain Dainja has helped ease the loss of Kofi Cockburn’s post presence with his own brand of smooth footwork and finishes around the basket, showing the ability to finish with either hand and face up and dribble past opposing big men. His elite wingspan has brought a significant shot blocking presence on the interior of this Illini defense as well. This blend of skillsets has made the Illini formidable on both ends.

Where We Go From Here

The road doesn’t get any easier for the Illini, as they have Rutgers coming to town before having to go on the road to try to avenge some of their tough home losses to Indiana and Penn State and have to finish the season against Michigan and Purdue.

If the Illini can continue to individually play well in their respective roles, lock in with more precision defensively to limit the fouling and free throw line opportunities, and just maybe get a proverbial shot in the arm with the return of Goode, they may just find themselves in the thick of things as the regular season closes.