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NCAA Basketball: Maryland at Illinois
BU was not happy after the home loss to Maryland. Will Illinois ever beat Maryland again?
Ron Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

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Uncertainty remains constant for Brad Underwood and Illinois

The picture will remain murky.

Happy Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, Illinois Land!

After a week that featured a pair of home Big Ten games — a win against Michigan State and a surprising loss to Maryland — Brad Underwood and his Illinois basketball squad sits in the same spot in reality, if not in the Big Ten landscape altogether.

One word describes that reality, both on — and off — the court.

“Uncertainty. Get used to never knowing what’s next.”

That may be the slogan of 2024.

NCAA Basketball: Maryland at Illinois
Marcus Domask had a productive, yet inefficient game against the Terps. He’s at the top of the scouting report now. 26 points on 19 shots and only one assist with five turnovers.
Ron Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Before we address what makes these times uncertain, beyond the obvious indefinite suspension of All-American guard Terrence Shannon, Jr., I’d like to provide some context why the pair of home games in the past week for Illinois basketball can be as misleading as NET rankings.

One win. One loss. One frustrated fan base. And, one frustrated coach.

In the obvious department, sometimes things need to be said.

Had the Illini shot a little worse in the last 10:00 against visiting Michigan State (71-68 victory on Jan. 11), it could have been a disastrous week for Underwood & Co. Conversely, had Illinois made anything in the second half agasint Maryland, and I mean anything, your Fighting Illini are likely sitting at 4-1 in the Big Ten after a pair of “hard fought home wins.”

But, here we are. Illinois is now 12-4 overall and 3-2 in the Big Ten. If you haven’t taken a peek at the Big Ten standings yet, give them a looksee.

Five teams have two losses: Purdue, Indiana, Illinois, Minnesota and Northwestern.

Four teams have three losses: Nebraska, Maryland, Ohio State and Iowa

Michigan State, Penn St., Rutgers and Michigan all have four losses.

NCAA Basketball: Maryland at Illinois
Kevin Willard coaches in a full suit in 2024. Weird choice, to be honest. Throw on a pullover, man.
Ron Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Wisconsin sits alone at the top with a sparkling 5-0 mark, two games clear of the field.

Just as everyone predicted.

Conference depth is a major issue for the Big Ten this season. Losing at home to Maryland is not catastrophic in terms of ending your season. It’s far from ideal.

On home court and in a position to compete for the Big Ten title, Illinois laid a goose egg the size of State Farm Center in the second half.

Here’s the breakdown by half. Avert your eyes if you must on the second half atrocity.

First Half for Illinois; First half for Maryland:

  • FG: 12-24 (50%); 15-35 (43%)
  • 2P: 7-16 (43.8%); 13-23 (56.5%)
  • 3P: 5-8 (63%), 2-12 (17%)
  • Assists/Turnover Ratio: 1.0; 3.5
  • Points in the Paints: Illinois had 14 - Maryland: 26

Second Half for Illinois; Second Half for Maryland:

  • FG: 9-40 (22.5%); 15-30 (50%)
  • 2P: 8-26 (30.8%); 13-25 (48.5%%)
  • 3P: 1-14 (7.1%%), 2-5 (40%)
  • Assists/Turnover Ratio: 1.0; 1.4
  • Points in the Paints: Illinois had 12 - Maryland: 26 (AGAIN)

Take a deep breath and scroll back up to take a look at the first half efficiency and shooting, contrasted with the poorest shooting performance that I can recall in the second half.

Illinois took 33% more shots in the second half than Maryland, yet yielded 28.2% fewer points. Not only hard to do, nearly impossible.

Despite the inability of Maryland to make threes at a high rate, Underwood and his staff refused to go under ball screens, allowing Maryland PG Jahmir Young to get downhill at will and torch Illinois in the paint to the tune of 28 points, with eight assists and only two turnovers to boot.

NCAA Basketball: Maryland at Illinois
Good day at the office for Reese. Hawkins was in foul trouble in both halves, ultimately fouling him out.
Ron Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Maryland center Julian Reese added 20 points and 11 rebounds inside for the Terps.

The dynamic duo made 19 shots combined, only two less than the entire Illinois roster.

Coleman Hawkins didn’t record a point in the first half, before notching eight in the second. He was arguably the lone somewhat bright spot for the Illini on offense in the second half.

Optimistic onlookers categorize the poor shooting as an anomaly, while a pessimistic perspective could suggest that the other shoe is finally dropping without your All-American guard.

NCAA Basketball: Maryland at Illinois
Rodgers backed up his career-high 15 point effort against Michigan State with a lackluster shooting night. Five points on eight shots for the Illinois PG.
Ron Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Against Maryland, the second half was a perfect storm of sorts. Ty Rodgers couldn’t make a layup (2-of-8), along with everyone else on the court for the Illini.

Justin Harmon (0-of-7) fell victim to the contagious lack of shotmaking.

Even without Shannon available on game days, some combination of Coleman Hawkins, Quincy Guerrier and Domask found ways to put the ball in the basket. Most of the games since Shannon’s suspension (Braggin’ Rights on Dec. 22) have been really good on the offensive end, bordering on elite in several cases.

Illinois has now played five games since the beatdown of Mizzou in St. Louis.

Let’s take a look at who has picked up the slack, and who hasn’t.

  • Domask: 36.8 minutes - 22 points, 48.6% FG, 35.3% from 3, 4.4 rebounds, 1.75 assist/turnovers
  • Hawkins: 33.4 minutes - 13 points, 46.3% FG, 44.4% from 3, 5.2 rebounds, ONLY FIVE OFFENSIVE REBOUNDS IN FIVE GAMES.
  • Guerrier: 32.6 minutes - 12.6 points, 37.7% FG, 25% from 3, 8.4 rebounds. NO OFFENSIVE REBOUNDS IN TWO GAMES.
  • Goode: 32.8 minutes - 8.2 points, 37.8% FG, 32.0% from 3, 4.0 rebounds. 10 OFFENSIVE REBOUNDS!
NCAA Basketball: Maryland at Illinois
Goode plays harder than anyone on the court. That needs to rub off on Hawkins and Guerrier.
Ron Johnson-USA TODAY Sports
  • Harmon: 25 minutes - 10.8 points, 41.5% FG, 50% from 3, 2.8 rebounds
  • Rodgers: 22.8 minutes - 7.6 points, 43.8% FG, 5.4 rebounds. 14 assists/8 turns (1.75)

A few things jump off the page in this statistical breakdown to me.

The minutes per game for the heavy hitters is about to uptick. The first game in the last five was a complete blowout win against FDU. As the minutes compile and the Big Ten slog thickens, Underwood needs to address that these players cannot continue this workload and have anything left for the postseason.

Underwood refusing to acknowledge heavy minutes as a harbinger of things to come for his team. I guess DGL is still sick?

Syndication: Journal-Courier
DGL has been a DNP for the last two games.
Alex Martin/Journal and Courier / USA TODAY NETWORK

Despite the local media pressing Underwood on potential fatigue problems for the top seven in the rotation, BU insisted that the “million dollar recovery room” and “18-22 year-olds playing basketball” will not endear the seventh-year head coach.

Underwood fell just shy of dismissing the worthwhile claims immediately. He will not make the excuse that his top guys are being overworked.

Excuses and reasons are not the same thing.

Not even close.

Often conflated, these two concepts stand no match for coach speak. Coaches often send messages to their players through the media during press conferences.

Underwood has to know his own lack of trust in freshman guard Dravyn Gibbs-Lawhorn not only exacerbates, but highlights the depth issues and has caused at least some of the recent lack of production on the offensive end.

NCAA Basketball: Illinois at Tennessee
BU tells a referee that these freshmen gotta earn my trust in games during practice.
Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

In case you’re wondering, I’m not bringing up the lack of playing time - zero minutes in two games - for the freshman guard out of potential transfer concerns for following seasons. This is strictly a concern for this year’s team and maximizing the production of the players you have on the current roster.

Fellow freshman guard Niccolo Moretti (foot injury) was also in uniform and available for the first time since Southern on Nov. 19. Moretti did not enter the game, in a much more reasonable move by Underwood.

It’s hard to fathom that Gibbs-Lawhorn cannot get into a game when the collective group of players makes just 22% of their shots...for an entire half.

I’d love to see BU give DGL 23 minutes and the freedom to miss all seven of his shots to see what he can accomplish statistically.

Underwood and the Illini travel to Ann Arbor to take on Michigan on Thursday, and return home for a Sunday start at noon against visiting Rutgers.

Please take The Scientific Poll.


What is your concern level for the game this week?

This poll is closed

  • 7%
    Defcon Five: 2-0 is a lock
    (18 votes)
  • 37%
    Defcon Four: Should go 2-0
    (85 votes)
  • 33%
    Defcon Three: Illinois could split if we don’t show up on the road
    (76 votes)
  • 14%
    Defcon Two: If Illinois doesn’t shoot better than this, 0-2 is a near certainty
    (34 votes)
  • 6%
    Defcon One: I need to buy my NIT tickets now.
    (15 votes)
228 votes total Vote Now

This is ball don’t go in. This is a short bench. This is minute watch.

This is Illinois basketball.