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Who’s at PG? And other questions for Illinois’ Spain trip

The Illini leave on Friday for 3 exhibition games in Europe.

Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

We’re over 4 months removed from the Illini loss to Arkansas in the NCAA Tournament, and lack of tourney success leaves some question marks in the roster that might have been addressed in the offseason.

The trip to Spain will give us a sneak peek of what the team has been working on this summer:

In anticipation, here are some questions we’d like (at least partially) answered after next week’s games.

1) Who is the Point Guard?

The question we’ve wanted answered since the middle of last season. All signs point to this being Ty Rodgers’ job to lose. He showed flashes of playmaking with the ball in his hands last year, but this trip is a chance to get some meaningful reps under his belt. Has he developed confidence in his jumper? He only took 2 jump shots his entire freshman season. Clearly his preference is to get to the rim, but he’ll be much easier to guard if defenses can consistently play underneath on ball screens.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament First Round-Illinois vs Arkansas Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

In arguably his best game last season, Rodgers looked great against Michigan in the double-OT thriller on March 2. He seemed comfortable with the ball in his hands and made some great reads. He was able to overpower defenders and get to the rim with ease, converting a fair amount of his chances into points. It’ll be difficult to keep him off the floor as a great defender and relentless rebounder, but if turnovers and poor shot selection start to limit the offensive flow - Underwood may need to look for other options.

Expect to see Justin Harmon, Sencire Harris or Dra Gibbs-Lawhorn facilitating the offense as well.

From highlights of his time at Utah Valley, Harmon seems comfortable with the ball in his hands. He spent significant time as the ball handler in pick and rolls last year, so he has plenty of experience initiating offense. He’ll need to cut down on turnovers, but he did shoot 33.3% from beyond the arc last year so teams will not be able to sag off defensively. Harmon also shot nearly 40% on catch and shoot threes (a surprising 44% when guarded) - so we should see him play quite a bit off the ball as well.

Sencire Harris on the other hand isn’t going to scare teams from beyond the arc, shooting just over 30% on 43 three-point attempts last year (23.5% after non-conference play finished). It’s difficult to envision him seeing significant minutes running point unless his shooting has greatly improved. If he can consistently utilize his athleticism to get downhill and finish at the rim, and continue to bring defensive energy that was unmatched last year, Underwood should continue to carve out a role for him.

Dra Gibbs-Lawhorn is an intriguing option (more on him below). His impressive Overtime Elite stats will take a hit after a run through the Big Ten slate - but he shot the ball well and was the third-leading scorer in that league last year.

2) Is there an improvement in three-point shooting?

The Spain trip will be a small sample size, but it would be encouraging to see improvement. The numbers from last season say the Illini got better. Here are the top 5 three-point shooters based on volume from last year:

The Illini ranked 360 out of 364 teams last year on catch and shoot percentage. With the additions of Harmon, Domask and Guerrier we can expect to see team shooting improve from beyond the arc. Luke Goode is also expected to play significant minutes and shot 41.2% on catch and shoot threes his freshman year.

3) How ready are the freshmen?

I expect to see Amani Hansberry get some minutes this year. Him and Dainja are the only traditional big men on the roster, so unless Underwood prefers to go “small” with Coleman at the 5 and Guerrier at the 4 when Dainja needs rest, Hansberry should have a role. His highlights show a respectable mid-range game, so he can provide different looks for opponents outside of Dainja.

NCAA Basketball: Big Ten Conference Tournament Second Round - Illinois vs Penn State Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports

As for Gibbs-Lawhorn, there are only so many guard minutes to go around. TSJ, Rodgers, Goode, Harmon, Marcus Domask, Harris, and Gibbs-Lawhorn will all be vying for playing time at the guard spots. I just don’t know how you keep this guy off the court…

He’s a great athlete, can break defenders down off the dribble, and plays with an edge. Even as a freshman, I expect him to compete right away for minutes. What does this mean for guys like Harmon and Harris? Only time will tell.

4) What’s the go-to offense?

The 5 out motion offense was abandoned part way through last season due to its ineffectiveness. The latter half of the year featured an offense centered around ball screens for TSJ and Matthew Mayer. These are two very skilled players, but the offense was extremely predictable and became stagnant when the initial set would break down. The ball would become sticky, leading to a ton of isolation.

Will Brad Underwood go back to more of the spread offense he’s been known for? Frequent cutting and off ball screens may allow this team to initiate offense easier in the half court. The trip to Spain should give us a glimpse of what the focus has been so far this summer.

5) What is the preferred rotation?

Underwood seems to prefer a rotation of about 8-9 guys. There are 11 who could make an argument for playing time (at least during the pre-season). The freshmen may need to show patience for a bigger role next year. Or we could have a transfer portal addition very disappointed in his minutes.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament First Round-Illinois vs Arkansas Reese Strickland-USA TODAY Sports

As for the starting lineup, Underwood has shown he’s willing to shake things up throughout the season. The locks for the starting lineup appear to be TSJ, Coleman Hawkins, and Dain Dainja. Outside of that, we could see Ty Rodgers, Luke Goode, Marcus Domask, or Quincy Guerrier crack the starting 5.

However this trip pans out, these games have no bearing on Selection Sunday. It provides the Illini a great opportunity late in the summer to test schemes and lineups against high level competition. Not only that, it’s a great team building opportunity for a squad that - according to Ty Rodgers - hadn’t fully bought into the Illini culture last year.

Data source: Synergy Sports