Diving head first into the first of 19 consecutive Big Ten games to close out the regular season, Illinois finds itself in an interesting spot.
While the Illini are ranked in the AP top 10 for the first time this season, they are without their leading scorer Terrence Shannon Jr. who is suspended indefinitely.
However, the orange and blue have remained focused and are still locked in on the task at hand.
“We haven’t varied from what our standards are,” said head coach Brad Underwood. “And this team’s standards are to be the best they can be every day.”
In an impressive 104-71 win over FDU on Friday, the first game without Shannon, six Illinois players finished with double digit points. In Shannon’s absence, other guys have the opportunity to step up.
We saw that first hand with transfers Justin Harmon and Quincy Guerrier scoring 18 and 14 respectively.
“There’s a maturity about these transfers,” Underwood said. “Their focus has been on winning and it’s not about the individual stuff, it’s been about their teammates.”
With Illinois still seeing success despite a major roadblock, that all comes from the culture of the program.
“This is going to sound corny, and I don’t know any other way to put it,” Underwood said. “Really really really high character guys, they all have a common goal of winning.”
Illinois is 1-0 in conference play to this point with their 76-58 win over Rutgers coming a month ago to the day, but opening this Big Ten stretch against Northwestern is a whole different beast.
The Wildcats are 10-2 and have already beat No. 1 Purdue this season, handing them their only loss to date.
Underwood had high praise for returning First-team All-Big Ten guard Boo Buie heading into tonight’s matchup.
“You can’t leave him alone,” Underwood said. “He’s got maybe the best float game in college basketball in terms of floaters from 15 feet.”
Underwood also praised Northwestern’s success on the other side of the ball.
“They’re an elite defensive transition team,” Underwood said. “They’ve been very very good on the defensive glass, as Chris’ (Collins) teams always are.”
Despite these challenges, Underwood is beyond confident in this year’s squad. He loves the way they stack up with their opponent each and every game.
“We have the ability to create a lot of matchup problems,” Underwood said. “One of the things I like about our group is I think some teams do have to try to figure out how they want to guard us.”
Outside of the game itself, this team has built incredible chemistry on and off the court. Relationships built in everyday life have translated to success on the hardwood.
“When you remove the round ball, these guys are truly friends,” Underwood said. “These are relationships where they know their parents’ names, they know their brothers and sisters, that’s unique.”
And of course, Underwood mentioned the secret Santa video that gained traction on social media that showed the team chemistry of this year’s squad on full display.
“We do this secret Santa thing at Christmas and to see the thoughtfulness that these guys had in their gift giving, its tremendous because they actually know them,” Underwood said. “It speaks volumes to the character of these guys.”
Illinois takes on Northwestern tonight at the State Farm Center. Tipoff is scheduled for 8 p.m. on BTN.