The Illini have fared well overall since the suspension of Terrence Shannon Jr., but as the grind of the Big Ten schedule continues, the Illini will need answers for the tough tests ahead. Especially without their best player, the Illini’s strength will be in operating by committee to run the best offensive sets and keep fresh legs on defense.
The offense against Maryland and in the first half against Purdue what it looks like when you don’t have a dynamic athlete like Shannon who can get you a basket when all else fails. The Illini don’t have that kind of difference maker on the roster anymore, and Brad Underwood needs to do a better job of making the most of each player’s strengths and putting them in better situations to succeed.
With Moretti returning and showing flashes of playmaking potential as he’s currently second on the team in assists average per game (albeit a small sample size), Underwood could benefit from regular rotation lineups with him as the lead guard to make everyone around him better while growing his confidence and experience.
Dra Gibbs-Lawhorn brings that athletic burst that Underwood has raved about seeing at practice, and we need to see more of that inserted into the games for longer spurts. His scoring ability can help recover some of what’s been lost in Shannon’s absence and provide more space for perimeter shooters like Goode, Hawkins, and Harmon to do more damage from deep.
In a game where Julian Reese got whatever he wanted in the paint and Jahmir Young probed the middle with impunity, it doesn’t make sense to have your biggest paint presence in Dain Dainja seeing only 10 minutes of action. The Illini needed to stop the bleeding on defense in the middle and they had no answer with the personnel mixes Underwood was putting on the floor.
Similar to Wisconsin’s swing offense principles, the Illini could benefit from reverting to some bread and butter rotations on offense when things aren’t clicking and they need a bucket to get the momentum back. Wisconsin’s long-term success in the Big Ten hasn’t come from individually dominant players but in the strength of its collective execution of the offense and putting players in good positions to be successful within their system.
The Illini could take a page out of their book and rely less on on-ball screens and perimeter ball movement by incorporating more intentional off-ball movement, flashes to the ball, and interior paint passing. Executing a system can get greater involvement from every player in a possession and help players know what to do when their backs are against the wall in a tough game. This is key to finding an identity as a team and establishing consistency on both ends of the floor. This is what the best programs do. It shows itself time and again, season after season.
This Illini team has plenty of talent and depth when deployed properly. The Shannon suspension is a huge gut punch, but it doesn’t have to spell doom for the rest of the season. The blend of skill sets on this team can go far if Underwood is open to leveraging his deep bench and making more in-game adjustments based on the flow of the game.