It’s been an eventful week for the Illini.
Wednesday was the deadline for early draft entrants to choose to stay in the draft or return to school. Thanks to big NIL offers, more enticing over possible second-round contracts, the Illini convinced both Terrence Shannon Jr. and Coleman Hawkins to come back for one more season.
Shannon Jr. was an All-Big Ten First Team player last season, while Hawkins started the entire season as a junior. The Illini’s floor and ceiling both rose exponentially with their returns.
Thursday brought unfortunate news, as RayJ Dennis, MAC Player of the Year, an Illinois native, and reported transfer target of the Illini at point guard, committed to Baylor instead. The Illini quickly pivoted to Jeremiah Williams, a point guard from Temple who missed all of last season with Iowa State due to an Achilles tear. With that, the Illini gave out their final scholarship for the 2023-24 season (there is still one walk-on spot open). There is some speculation that they will still try to add another graduate transfer, but that would require a scholarship to unexpectedly open up.
With the roster more or less finalized, let’s take a look at what the depth chart and rotations might look like for Brad Underwood in 2023-24.
- NBA Draft/G League departures: Matthew Mayer
- Transfer Portal Departures: Jayden Epps (Georgetown), RJ Melendez (Georgia), Brandon Lieb (Illinois State)
- Other Departures: Skyy Clark (left team midseason, transferred to Louisville), Zacharie Perrin (left team midseason to go pro overseas), Connor Serven (walk-on entered transfer portal), Paxton Warden (walk-on entered transfer portal)
- Incoming Freshmen: Amani Hansberry (Baltimore, MD), Dra Gibbs-Lawhorn (Raleigh, NC)
- Incoming Transfers: Jeremiah Williams (Iowa State), Quincy Guerrier (Oregon), Justin Harmon (Utah Valley), Marcus Domask (Southern Illinois), Keaton Kutcher (walk-on, South Dakota)
Note: Some players will appear twice. And this is a prediction of what Brad Underwood will do, not what I want the Fighting Illini to do.
All eyes were on the PG spot for the Illini in the transfer portal. Last year, they decided against adding a veteran in the transfer portal and rolled with multiple freshmen. In the end, Skyy Clark left the team midway through the season, Jayden Epps entered the portal following a solid freshman season, and Sencire Harris showed he had a ton to work on offensively. So the Illini ended up with Williams as their transfer PG.
He may not have the scoring punch or shooting of RayJ Dennis or LJ Cryer or Yuri Collins, but he has very good size (6’5”, 185 pounds), and his defense is elite (1.4 steals, 0.7 blocks per game at Temple). He also averaged 4.3 assists per game, a solid number for a college PG. His shooting splits aren’t great, but ideally they are fixable. If he’s healthy, and his outside shot has improved a little, he can be a good fit next to the rest of the team with his strong defense and decent setup game. Then again, if his shot hasn’t improved at all and his defense is still a work in progress coming back from injury, the Illini will regret this as their final scholarship offer for the season.
(A reminder, Williams must submit a waiver to play this season since he is transferring for the second time in two years.)
Harris was a huge energy guy for the Illini. He was easily their best defender, and was a catalyst for huge comebacks against UCLA and Northwestern. Illustrating his impact is the Illini’s net rating with him on the court: +19.6, easily highest on the team, per CBB Analytics. Now net rating definitely isn’t a perfect stat (nobody thinks Coleman Hawkins was a net negative on the court), but it being so high showed that despite his offensive flaws, Harris always was a positive player for the Illini on the court.
If he can just be a little more aggressive attacking the rim (he had a lot of highlight dunks, but sometimes got timid due to his poor free throw shooting) he will play a lot more this season. Brad will need him to, to prevent the team from falling behind early again.
Moretti arrived in midseason but barely played. He faces an uphill battle to minutes, being so undersized. Part of why he came midseason was to get with the Illini strength and conditioning coaches early. Ideally, he will more or less be a redshirt this season and barely play as he tries to get stronger.
Kutcher transferred as a walk-on from South Dakota. He didn’t play much there, so he won’t play much at Illinois.
1-Terrence Shannon Jr.
Shannon was the biggest decision of the offseason, and he seemed to have a legitimate chance of getting drafted early in the second round. Now, he returns to Illinois hoping to guarantee himself an NBA contract, and maybe even get into the first round as an older prospect. Shannon was terrific for the Illini last season, averaging 17.2 PPG and making All-Big Ten First Team. A second year with Brad Underwood will likely unlock Shannon into Player of the Year contention, provided he can tighten his handle, catch and shoot threes more like he did at Texas Tech, continue to attack the rim viciously but be able to finish through contact, and simply assert himself more, like Ayo Dosunmu learned to do. Shannon is a star in the making, someone whose jersey could hang from the rafters.
The Illini recruited Harmon not as their lead point guard, but to fill the role Andres Feliz played in 2019-20, as an off-ball shooter, great defender, and secondary playmaker. He was one of Utah Valley’s better players as they won the WAC regular season title, and made the NIT semifinals. He was on fire during the NIT run, scoring 21 PPG on 52% from the field. The Fighting Illini won’t need him to score that much in 2023-24, but they’ll need him to space the floor, hit some catch and shoot 3s, and be a secondary playmaker, and be a great defender. The defensive potential of a backcourt with Williams, TSJ, Harris, and Harmon is tantalizing.
Lawhorn might be relied on a little more than originally expected early on. He complements Williams as a scorer and shooter, so he can offset some of the scoring lost from the Epps transfer, but he is still undersized and needs to work on the non-scoring aspects of his game. DGL will need to show early on he can both shoot off the dribble and hit catch and shoot treys to get playing time. Epps was able to do it, and was probably the Illini’s best legitimate point guard last season. Brad Underwood and the staff will be thrilled if DGL can provide close to what Epps provided last season.
Redd is the only returning walk-on for the Illini. That counts for something.
Goode had some good games for the Illini down the stretch of the season, and shot quite well in a small sample. He profiles as the team’s best three-point shooter. He may be the biggest X-factor on the team. Goode has stuck around with the Illini as RJ Melendez got more playing time and transferred, and Brandin Podziemski transferred and is now expected to be a first-round pick. Underwood should reward him with a starting spot, especially because he complements the stars so well with his shooting (39% from 3 in two seasons) and size (6’7”).
Domask was the Illini’s first get in the transfer portal, coming up from Carbondale. He was the star for an SIU team that was third in the MVC, leading the team in points, rebounds, and assists (16.7, 5.8, 3.8). He also is a good shooter; for his career he shoots 36% on threes on 5 attempts per game. Much needed for an Illini team that lacked consistent options to shoot from outside. He should be able to quickly adjust to shooting well off the catch. Domask has a chance to be one of the most underrated transfers in the country, if his shortcomings in athleticism aren’t exposed defensively.
Guerrier played at Syracuse as a PF, where he was especially good his sophomore season (13.7 PPG, 8.4 RPG, 1.1 BPG). With Oregon, he played more on the wing, where he struggled defensively, but did improve his 3 point shooting (up to 35% last season). With the Illini, he will be expected to mostly play at the 4, giving him better matchups defensively and allowing the Illini to space the floor, and give them a lot of different possible lineup combinations with Guerrier, Hawkins, Goode, Domask, and Rodgers. The versatility is a weapon for Brad Underwood.
The second biggest domino, Hawkins announced his return to the Illini before the draft deadline. His first season of starting brought a lot of good, as Hawkins was a great defender, who could play and guard the 3, 4, or 5. He also had a number of highlight reel dunks, and stuffed the stat sheet (10 PPG, 6.3 RPG, 3 APG, 1.1 SPG, 1.2 BPG). His issue is the turnovers (2.5 a game) and the three-point shooting (28% last season, and often turned down too many open looks to drive into the teeth of the defense or be too unselfish with a pass). If he is less hesitant to shoot those open threes, and his percentage gets above 30%, and his experience helps him tone down the turnovers, he can contend for All-Big Ten.
Rodgers was similar to Harris in doing all the little things for the Illini, crashing the glass, playing great defense, and even running the point and not doing bad at it at all. Rodgers has a good layup and post package, but he can’t shoot at all. That prevents the Illini from playing a lineup that could have insane defense with Rodgers and Harris but would struggle mightily offensively. If he can develop a little bit of a midrange and free throw shooting, he will be a huge part of the 2023-24 Illini team.
Dainja looked like an absolute stud for the Illini early on in the season, dominating non-conference games and then winning some conference games like against Michigan State. However, Big Ten teams realized they could double him into easy turnovers, and that hurt the Illini down the stretch. He also struggled against very mobile bigs or when teams stretched the floor out without a big. Still, Dainja averaged 9.5 PPG and 5.5 RPG on 63.6% from the field. He can get the Illini buckets at the 5, he just needs to learn to pass out of a double team faster and be quicker on his feet defensively.
Hansberry just missed out on being a top-50 recruit on 247. The 6’8”, 230-pound big man is the prized recruit of the 2023 class. He won the Gatorade Player of the Year award in Maryland, He can likely play the 4 and 5, with his strength and physicality in the paint. He could become an absolutely dominant force in a year or two. For now, the Fighting Illini will hope that Hansberry can provide great depth in the frontcourt, as they prepare to deal with another season of Big Ten men.
Hawkins played very well as the small ball 5, even though he might be taller than Dain Dainja but is much thinner. He will play a lot of minutes at the 5, as he did down the stretch, getting the better of guys like Hunter Dickinson who are so much bigger. Still, being the full-time center would take a toll on him, so don’t expect him to be the starter there.
Expect the walk-on spot for the Illini to be filled by a frontcourt player.
Overall, the Illini are probably better than last season, with even more versatility in the lineups they can put on the floor, but the key to being a Big Ten and national title contender will come from increased experience and hopeful improvement from the stars (Shannon and Hawkins), the role players (Rodgers, Harris, Goode), and the transfers fitting around them better (Domask, Harmon, Williams, Guerrier). They may not have acquired the perfect star point guard they were hoping for (though they may still be trying) but the team, now with a lot more experience both overall and playing together, should set their sights on a conference title, a top-4 seed, and maybe, finally, the second weekend of March Madness.