CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — After a well-rounded, team victory over the Rutgers Scarlet Knights, Illinois hits the road to take on a team it’s faced victory against in a big way.
Head coach Brad Underwood was available to the media on Tuesday to look ahead at the in-state matchup, reflect on Terrence Shannon Jr.’s return from suspension, and touch on recruiting.
Wildcats 2: Electric Boogaloo
The Fighting Illini (14-4, 5-2 Big Ten) sit third in the Big Ten behind Wisconsin and Purdue, and sit just one spot above the Northwestern Wildcats.
Brad Underwood and his team will travel to Welsh-Ryan Arena in Evanston on Wednesday to take on the Wildcats. While Northwestern is a team they beat by 30 in the home fixture, Underwood and his squad are by no means looking at the game as an easy one.
“It’s a team that has beaten Maryland, has beaten Purdue at home,” Underwood said. “They’re shooting the ball much better at home than they have on the road.”
Illinois’ two conference losses have come to Maryland and Purdue.
“[Ryan] Langborg, [Nick] Martinelli, Ty Berry, [Brooks] Barnhizer, those guys shoot the ball at a really high clip at home. Obviously, I think Boo [Buie] is one of the outstanding guards in the league,” Underwood said.
Barnhizer is coming off of a career-high 24 points in the Wildcats’ loss to Nebraska last Saturday.
“You just have to make those guys’ touches as hard as you can,” Underwood said. “I say this with Boo, and I have so much respect for him, he’s very unselfish. You know, he’s gonna be a five, six, seven assist a game guy.”
To the Orange and Blue faithful, Northwestern is a familiar opponent, and Boo Buie is a familiar foe. The fifth-year guard dropped 50 points across two games that the Illini split with the Wildcats last season.
Next man up, Sixth man up
“In a perfect world, you don’t want to have a discrepancy between your first five and your second five and that’s what we strive for,” Underwood said. One of the most important pieces in his second five this season has been graduate transfer Justin Harmon.
Harmon, who was also available to the media on Tuesday, has embraced the sixth-man role as the season has rolled on. Underwood has been relatively open about how hard he is on Harmon, and spoke on Tuesday about what he expects from a good sixth man.
“No drop-off,” Underwood said. “And elevation, elevating the play. It doesn’t have to be in points. It can be a defensive lift, it can be an energy lift, it can be a lot of things, and I put tremendous value in that as a coach.”
Harmon says that he isn’t quite used to being the sixth man. Before landing in Champaign, he had stints in Barton (Kan.) Community College and Utah Valley.
“It’s a new role for me, so I just embrace it in any way I can,” he said.
Harmon has played a big role in recent weeks, shooting at a 40% clip from three this year. After a slow start to the season, he’s averaged 11.8 points per game in the last seven for the Illini.
“A lot of times, we get wrapped up in who starts and this and that. I want those sixth, seventh, eighth, ninth, however many it is, to be able to elevate, to do something that helps elevate.”
“It’s kind of the old cliche. It’s not who starts, it’s who finishes,” Underwood said.
Earlier in the week, Illinois picked up a major commitment from 2025 five-star guard Jeremiah Fears. He’s the first commitment of the class, and is also the younger brother of Michigan State guard Jeremy Fears Jr.
“I think that we have to be careful with high school guys,” Underwood said, speaking on his recruiting philosophy. “It’s the right fit, it’s the right character, it’s obviously talent.”
Fears, a Joliet native, is one of three recent Illinois commits. The 2024 class holds signees Morez Johnson (Chicago) and Jason Jakstys (Yorkville).
“To recruit high school players, we’re gonna continue to do that,” Underwood said on the balance between high school recruits and transfer pickups. “I think they’re the base, the essence of what your foundation is, what your culture is.”
Building a culture has been an important aspect of Underwood’s Illinois teams over the years. There are just two upperclassmen on the current roster who have been with the team since their freshman year, and Underwood singled them out when emphasizing their importance.
“They help teach the transfers what to do [even if they’re] one or two-year guys, because they understand, they’ve been here,” he said. “I think Coleman Hawkins is one of the great examples, a four-year guy, or [Luke] Goode, a three-year guy, that just understand and have helped our transfers this year.”
Guess who’s back, back again?
TJ’s back, tell a friend.
In his return to action against Rutgers, Terrence Shannon Jr. shook off some rust, scoring 16 points in 28 minutes off the bench. It was Shannon’s first time suiting up since before he was indefinitely suspended for a rape charge on Dec. 28.
While it wasn’t exactly like his 30-point, 11 rebound performance in the Braggin’ Rights win over Missouri, Underwood understands that it’s going to take time for Shannon to get back in game shape.
While it would be unfair to blame Illinois’ first two conference losses of the season being on his absence, it goes without saying that TSJ was missed. Besides the obvious loss of missing a 6-foot-6, 220-pound guard, Shannon’s length is something that Illinois missed on the defensive end.
“He’s long. He does a great job with his length in what we call ‘rear view contests’ over the top of ball screens,” Underwood said of Shannon. “You don’t replace that. That’s genetics and a great desire to become an elite defender.”
Underwood also added that forward Amani Hansberry will be in uniform on Wednesday.
“He was just really starting to blossom and play well, prior to the back injury,” Underwood said. The freshman has been out of action since the team’s Jan. 2 win over Northwestern with back spasms.
Before his suspension, Shannon was the team’s leading scorer, averaging 21.7 points per game.
“His ability to guard, his ability to defend and block shots and challenge. All those things were vital parts of everything we do,” Underwood said. “So we’ve got that back in the lineup.”
“Terrence is an amazing defender. I guard him every day, he guards me every day and we just make each other better,” Harmon said. “But having him back is like having our whole family back together.”
While TSJ’s performance against Rutgers showed signs of him regaining his footing, Harmon said the transition to Illinois basketball with Shannon back felt seamless.
“It never did feel different, like with him. With him there, it didn’t feel, like, different,” Harmon said. “I always felt like he was there with us with his spirit and stuff, but it’s been great having him back.”
When asked if Shannon would start against the Wildcats, Underwood smiled and replied, “We’ll see.”
After going 2-0 against Rutgers with their win on Sunday, Illinois will look to secure their second season sweep when they travel to play Northwestern on Wednesday. Tipoff is at 8 p.m., and the game can be seen on Big Ten Network.