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NCAA Basketball: Rutgers at Illinois
“We’re so back.”
Ron Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

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This version of Illinois can contend for more than a Big Ten title

Guess who’s back. Tell a friend.

Happy Tuesday, Illinois Land!

Since the last time we met on this digital gathering place, the entire landscape of the Illinois basketball has been recalibrated on the court. Perhaps anything but off of it.

Every single one of you reading this knows that Terrence Shannon, Jr. has be granted reinstatement to the Illinois basketball, albeit by a preliminary injunction issued last week.

Rather than spend the entirety of my time and column detailing legal proceedings and preliminary hearings, I’ll dedicate our collective energy on what this means for Brad Underwood, Illinois basketball and the greatest fans in college basketball.

Before we get to TSJ and his return and those ramifications, Illinois basketball received additional outstanding news regarding a 2025 signee, Jeremiah Fears.

Fears announced his intention to play for Illinois on Monday.

As only he can do, The One and Only Pleas breaks down the recent commitment of 2025 prep player Jeremiah Fears to the Illini. Read it.

I’m looking forward to DGL, Fears and 2024 signee Jayce Butler owing the Big Ten landscape in a few years. Good times to come for Illinois hoops.

On the drive to work tomorrow, click the link below. Here’s the latest episode of “Oskee Talk,” hosted by Drew Pastorek. I join this week with Pleas to talk all things Illini and feature a TSJ breakdown. Listen to it.

NCAA Basketball: Rutgers at Illinois
Shannon, Jr. slaps hands with the Orange Crush after the 23-point beatdown of visiting Rutgers.
Ron Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Now that we’re getting into the meat and taters of this column, it’s prudent to do a quick reset of what’s taken place on the court in the last week.

The Illini finished the week at 2-0, with a 15-point victory on the road in Ann Arbor and the 86-63 victory over visiting Rutgers on Sunday.

  • Overall for the season: Ranked No. 9 in KenPom: 8th in OER (121.4) and 27th in DER (97.2)
  • Big Ten play: No. 2 in offense (115.6) and No. 2 in defense (100.2)
  • KenPom Prediction: Finish with a record of 23-8 and 14-6 in Big Ten Play.
  • One game behind Wisconsin (6-1) and half game behind Purdue (6-2) in Big Ten standings
  • ESPN Bracketology (1/19 Edition): Illinois No. 4 in the East, facing No. 13 Akron
  • AP voters in the human poll voted Illinois No. 10 in the poll this week.

Here is a breakdown of how all the voters tallied their subjective votes. S/O to Dylan Sinn putting Illinois at No. 25. Pretty consistent other than that outlier.

Coleman Hawkins doesn’t deserve his flowers, he deserves an entire meadow with his recent utter dominance on the defensive end. The offense needs a pedal or two as well.

NCAA Basketball: Rutgers at Illinois
Hawkins after banking a three in the second half against Rutgers.
Ron Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Let’s take a look statistically at Hawkins the last five games. You’re going to be shocked by these numbers.

  • Minutes: 34.6
  • Points: 13.4
  • Rebounds: 7.4
  • Assists/Turnovers (Ratio): 3.4/1.4 (2.4)
  • Steals: 3.0
  • Blocks: 1.6
  • Blocks + Steals/Turnovers: 3.29
  • 3P%: 34.6%
  • Free Throws: 85.7% (18/21)

Hawkins’ PER (Player Efficiency Rating) has nearly quadrupled since returning from his knee injury. It now sits at a 19.3 for the season, a career high mark by 19.9% through 15 games played. Ayo’s sophomore year his PER was 19.8 (for perspective).

I get it.

The other team’s center has been statistically good over the past few games. That’s not lost on me. Some of the other teams’ big men enjoying individual success is by design.

Cliff Omoruyi had 22 and 9, but he had to take 19 shots to get those points. If Omoruyi takes 19 shots a game, Rutgers does not win a single one of them, regardless of opponent.

Hawkins managed to get five steals in that game after recording six against Michigan.

  • The last two games: 11 steals
  • The last two games: 2 turnovers
NCAA Basketball: Rutgers at Illinois
Another Hawkins swat.
Ron Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Not a bad result for a guy that has been maligned by the fanbase for not only his decision making, but also his defensive prowess. Most fans that have this opinion don't really watch the game itself. They’re more focused on what he doesn’t do every night.

If you STILL think Hawkins “is terrible” or that “he sucks,” I’ve got some underwater land for construction projects to sell you.

The next four games will feature matchups with Illinois being favored in all four contests.

Underwood takes the Illini to play Evanston’s Big Ten Team on Wednesday (8 p.m., BTN) and will play host to the Hoosiers and Mike Woodson on Saturday (2 p.m., FOX).

I’ll go ahead and just type it. Illinois needs another 2-0 week with these opponents.

The obvious caveat is that Illinois has struggled recently against Northwestern on the road, particularly last year when they were summarily trounced by double digits. This isn’t last year.

NCAA Basketball: Northwestern at Illinois
Domask had 32 points, six assists and five rebounds in the previous matchup.
Ron Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

While Shannon was suspended, Illinois beat down the Wildcats by a 30-piece, and it wasn’t that close. The post trapping of Northwestern provided not only no challenge for the Illini, but could easily be labeled as a preference of the entire roster.

Spoiler: Illinois will not shoot 10-18 (55.6%) from behind the arc in this game. Probably.

Of note: NW made 50% (8-16) from behind the arc. And lost. By 30.

Super senior Marcus Domask has come back to reality in the games since. Booty Ball will still be a focal point in this game, and I expect the half court offense against Northwestern to be spectacular once again.

Also of note(s): Shannon is playing in this game. Hawkins is the not the player he was last game.

Prediction: Illinois wins, but not by three stacks this time. Expect a line of around IL (-4) at tip. Underwood makes it three in row, Illinois wins 80-71.

I’ll write another column on how bad Indiana is this year and how much it delights me closer to the game on Saturday. I hate Indiana. H-A-T-E.

With Shannon back in the fold, this Illinois team can win the Big Ten. It can also go far in the NCAA Tournament. Really far. Potentially all the way.

NCAA Basketball: Rutgers at Illinois
BU has this team rolling.
Ron Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

I’d like to leave this little nugget for your perusal. At the time of its release, it was not well-received, bordering on ridicule. Apologies accepted in the comments below.

Given a six-game mandate to play without Shannon, the Illinois roster proved to itself — and its enigmatic coach — that it’s “really good” without him. He being TSJ. He’s now back.

I’ll give Shannon the utmost credit for his on-court return. He didn’t force it. He didn’t try to hit a bases empty grand slam. Other than potentially forcing a few threes which he generally wants to do, he played an exceptional offensive game.

It will take Shannon 10-14 days to get back into his true elite game shape.

Illinois should be able to go on an extended heater with Shannon in tow, and the general schedule of the Big Ten.

NCAA Basketball: Rutgers at Illinois
Harmon had 18 and 8 in his best game as an Illini. That five looked pretty good together.
Ron Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

There is a developing situation at the “point guard” spot to take notice of, with the recent development of the way teams are guarding starting PG Ty Rodgers and the return of Shannon.

In the Rutgers game, Rodgers played 14 minutes (four points and two rebounds) while transfer Justin Harmon played 29 (18 points and 8 rebounds). Keep an eye on this.

I would suggest moving away from any type of traditional PG whatsoever, and field the best team of five as much as possible throughout a contest.

NCAA Basketball: Illinois at Michigan
Goode can space the floor because he brings a defender with him wherever he goes.
Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

As currently constituted, and the current trajectory of each individual player, here’s who should be getting the bulk of the group minutes moving forward, with their primary role attached.

  • Luke Goode: Three (floor spacer) and D
  • Terrence Shannon Jr.: Transition offense and best guard on defense
  • Marcus Domask: Booty Ball and Primary Facilitator
  • Quincy Guerrier: Rebound and slash
  • Coleman Hawkins: Defensive captain and Pick and Pop
  • 6th Man - Justin Harmon: Three and D

Give me your five best in the comments below.

Please take The Scientific Poll.

Poll

What is the ceiling for Illinois basketball this season, if they play to their capability?

This poll is closed

  • 9%
    Sweet 16
    (41 votes)
  • 24%
    Elite 8
    (102 votes)
  • 38%
    Final Four
    (158 votes)
  • 27%
    Natty
    (113 votes)
414 votes total Vote Now

This is a full roster. This is getting interesting. This is another 2-0 week.

This is Illinois basketball.