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5 Illini who can benefit from a strong performance in March

Stock will rise and fall for the Illini.

Northwestern v Illinois Photo by Justin Casterline/Getty Images

As old school hip hop fans love to say, Once Again, It’s On.

It’s the most wonderful time of the damned year.

It’s the time of the year when we see Joe Lunardi in our dreams.

Goodbye “what if,” hello “right now.”

For Illini fans, this is the time where hope springs eternal.

Over the past few years, this is the time of year that Illinois’ rabid fanbase has been subsisting on wish sandwiches.

What’s a wish sandwich?

“Man, I wish the Illini could advance to the second weekend of the tournament.”

There has been no meat in that sandwich in a long time.

Hell, there hasn’t even been Impossible meat.

Will this year be different?

As a lifelong Cubs fan, I spent the overwhelming majority of my life wondering if every single year was “the year.” Deep down, I almost always knew the answer.

So I’m not here to make any speculative predictions that anyone can take to heart, internalize, and remember in a moment of heartache.

But i will provide a lens through which to enjoy the Big Ten and NCAA tournaments regardless of how long the Illini survive.

This Illini team has struggled at times with both personnel and execution.

But what if the two come together? How can they put a run together?

Here are five players who can not only impact the program with their March performances, but who can raise their individual stock.

Terrence Shannon Jr.

Michigan v Illinois Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

This is the obvious choice. Shannon has been there and done that in terms of deep tournament runs. He’s been a productive player for the Illini. He’s wrecked many rims and had several games that are on par with the nation’s elite players. He is a throwback wing with a two-way game. And if you took an x-ray of him, you’d find that he definitely has that dawg in him.

A star performance from Shannon would put him squarely on the radar of teams in the late lottery of the NBA Draft. No, he is not likely to play his way into the top 10. But if he shoots the ball well, makes good decisions, and goes downhill and finishes with authority in big games, his future will be as big as his most daunting dreams and goals.

Matthew Mayer

Michigan v Illinois Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

The second of the upper class transfers, Mayer is another interesting case. He’s clearly a character. He’s extraordinarily marketable with an aw shucks charisma.

He’s also had games where he blocked shots and hit threes like a pro.

Perimeter shooting has been a weakness for this team all season. The Illini have been one of the most inefficient teams in the country from beyond the arc. That normally leads to early departures.

Mayer is one of the most likely players to prevent a clang-induced exit.

And not only could a multi-game 3 and D heater help keep the Illini in the tournament, but it could definitely go a long way to winning close games.

And like Shannon, Mayer has been in the biggest games the NCAA has to offer. He has the jewelry to prove it.

If Mayer continues to the Illinois’ best three-point shooter, he could go from a possible draft pick to a definite draft pick. Sure, his experience level screen second rounder, but remember that 3-and-D wings are the way of the league. He may never make an all-star team, but here’s to hoping he can make a roster.

Luke Goode

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: FEB 18 Illinois at Indiana Photo by Joe Robbins/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Luke Goode’s impact on the Illini has nothing to do with his immediate NBA future. But it is critical to the program’s short-term future success.

Goode is still rounding his way back into game shape after sitting out the majority of the season. He’s shown flashes of the heady sharpshooter he was expected to be. But his role comes into sharp relief for a team that has suffered from inconsistency.

Goode is a reliable hand. He’s a willing and versatile defender who plays with toughness and confidence. With the streaky nature of RJ Melendez, Goode may be more important to the program than he has ever been.

If he can improve on his 3.3 PPG scoring average by stretching the floor in key moments, he can impact what the Illini do in the transfer portal. There are possible outgoing departures in the portal along with the likely departure of Shannon and the certain departure of Mayer.

Will the Illini need another wing? Perhaps, but this coaching staff seems to have a lot of confidence in Goode. A clutch performance and a tournament run would do little to dampen that belief.

Ty Rodgers

Michigan v Illinois Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

We know Ty won’t wake up the morning of the Penn State game and have the three-point range of Alfonso Plummer.

But man, the frenetic pace with which he plays on both ends is a thrill ride. It’s like, you know you want him to slow down but you are having way too much fun watching to tell him.

He has made significant strides as a playmaker. He’s made some electrifying drives to the hoop. He’s improved as a finisher. And he has the size and length to bother opposing point guards.

March is about guard play. And Rodgers is not a traditional guard. He is a positionless menace with athleticism and IQ to burn. His role is increasing. And with the uncertain health of Jayden Epps (seriously, take your time and recover), Rodgers could find himself square in the middle of big moments.

How will he perform? I can’t wait to find out.

But with the departure of Skyy Clark, the program needs a primary ballhandling guard. They may seek that player in the portal. And nobody would bat an eyelash. But if Rodgers can cement himself as the team’s best playmaker, the pressure to land a superstar diminishes significantly.

Like Goode, Rodgers figures to loom large for the 2023-24 Illini. His tournament run could go a long way to punctuating just how large.

Coleman Hawkins

Illinois v Purdue Photo by Justin Casterline/Getty Images

Which Coleman Hawkins will the Illini get in March? That single question could be the biggest determining factor of what this team does.

Think about Hawkins at his best.

He can play any frontcourt position. He can defend at the rim and on the perimeter. He can make shots from mid-range and deep when he’s open. And he can act as a secondary facilitator in a rapid-fire offense that requires a high basketball IQ. He’s the complete stretch big man package.

But some nights, he disappears for long stretches. His focus and decision making can lag as can the accuracy on his passes. The fire and passion that lead to his best games can often lead to his least efficient performances.

His upside is tantalizing. He can play in a big lineup with Dain Dainja or in a small ball lineup as a versatile 5-man. He can shoot, pass, handle, and defend. And he has the chance to do so next year in the NBA.

A standout tournament performance could see Hawkins moving into the back end of the first round. His game is tailor-made for the NBA. If he shoots the perimeter shot more consistently in March, he will hear his name called in June.