When news of Terrence Shannon Jr’s suspension broke, the outlook on the remaining Illinois basketball season didn't look great. People questioned how the team would react both on and off the court. The national media wrote Illinois off.
Just two weeks later, the Illini have given the faithful Illinois fanbase a lot to be excited about.
Two dominating wins over FDU and the ‘Cats, a furious comeback that fell just short against No. 1 on the road, and an exciting win over Tom Izzo and Sparty have Illini fans feeling pretty confident.
There have been injuries, illnesses, and lots of poor publicity surrounding the program, but it hasn't rattled them in the slightest. Brad Underwood wasn't lying when he said that this is the most connected and dedicated team he's had at Illinois.
Everybody on the roster has stepped up in some way. Marcus Domask is dominating offensively. He’s actually leading the conference in scoring during Big Ten play, averaging 22 a game.
Quincy Guerrier has proven himself as a steady contributor on both ends of the court. He’s had at least 10 points and 5 rebounds in seven straight outings.
Coleman Hawkins is playing like one of the best players in the conference. It’s very apparent that his poor play at the beginning of the year was a result of his lingering injury. He’s also locked in mentally, clearly:
Illinois forward Coleman Hawkins on his improved shooting pic.twitter.com/uU1LU2aQac— The Field of 68 (@TheFieldOf68) January 12, 2024
Ty Rodgers just had the best scoring game of his career. He had a really rough night at Mackey Arena with Zach Edey guarding him, but was easily able to exploit Michigan State’s defense when they put their bigs on him.
Luke Goode has slotted into the starting lineup seamlessly. He’s in a bit of a shooting slump as of late, but that's the least of my worries.
Justin Harmon has looked great in his extended minutes. He’s the unsung hero of the last couple weeks, in my opinion. He’s averaging over 13 points per game over the last four. I swear he’s made every corner three he's taken.
It feels odd only mentioning six guys, but the Illini are practically running with a six-man rotation. And it’s working well. Moretti and Hansberry are still injured. Harris is redshirting. Shannon is suspended, of course. Dainja and Gibbs-Lawhorn have gotten a bit of tick and have played alright, but they're just not contributors on a night to night basis at this point.
I don't think a six-man rotation is a bad thing at all. If it works, it works. Plenty of teams that are left standing late in the year rely on 6 or 7 guys instead of 8 or 9.
I honestly think this new version of the Illini is built for March. They have a compact rotation full of experienced players that have shown they're committed to winning. That alone is a good recipe for success in the NCAA Tournament.
Add in the fact that nearly every player is coming into their own on offense and is a versatile defender, and I think we're looking at a team that's poised for a legit run at a Big Ten title and a deep run in March. It’s crazy to say after everything that's happened surrounding this squad recently.
I may be getting ahead of myself, as Illinois still has 16 Big Ten games to play, but if you've been watching games around the league this year, you’ll know that this is very much a down year for the conference.
The conference title race is likely already down to three teams (Purdue, Wisconsin, and Illinois) through just 4-5 conference games. Illinois currently sits at a 91.9% chance to finish top 4 in the conference, per Bart Torvik. Get the job done at home and just win a few road games the rest of the year and staying in the top 4 is essentially a lock.
No Big Ten game is ever a free win, but Illinois does have some ideal matchups coming up. Bart Torvik projects Illinois to win its next five games, which would include victories over Maryland, Michigan, Northwestern, Rutgers and Indiana. Win 4 or 5 of those games and we can actually start talking about a potential Big Ten championship coming home to Champaign for the second time in three seasons.
This Illini squad is surprising everybody, including myself. They lost their best player and are still firing on all cylinders. Brad Underwood needs to be appreciated more for what he's done with the Illinois men’s basketball program.
Take away an All-American caliber player from a lot of other teams in the country and I’d bet they instantly collapse. Not Illinois.