Following a win over Indiana on Saturday, the Illini approach the end of January 15-5. They sit tied for third place in the Big Ten and lie pretty firmly on the four or five seed line in most the prominent bracket projections making the rounds.
On the surface, that’s a perfectly fine place to be. Heading into a soft February schedule, its current standing gives Illinois every opportunity to position itself near the top of the conference standings and in prime position for a postseason run.
Taking a deeper dive into the Illini’s recent performance paints a bit of a different picture. Nothing warranting any alarm sirens, but undeniably a team that has begun to slip in a few different areas.
An ugly, sluggish victory over an Indiana team bound for the NIT at home showed a team that just felt a little bit off, struggling to find the identity it’s had for much of the season.
There’s a few things Illinois needs to do to find the best version of themselves again.
First and foremost, Terrence Shannon Jr. needs to get his confidence back.
It was fully expected that Shannon, given everything that’s happened and having spent nearly a month away from the team, was going to need some time to reintegrate himself. Right now, though, things look rough.
Shannon has really struggled to regain his pre-suspension form and the rust has made itself evident since his return to the lineup. He’s shooting 9-for-28 overall, 1-for-14 from three and has made a multitude of uncharacteristic defensive mistakes.
If there’s one thing Shannon hasn’t been during his time at Illinois, it’s tentative. Yet, that’s how you can describe his approach since returning to the court as he tries to fit himself back into the picture without disrupting the Illini’s chemistry. It’s a hard thing to do, especially with a lack of confidence.
Goal number one for Illinois in the month of February needs to be getting Shannon right again. The best version of Illinois involves Shannon getting back to alpha status and being the assertive, unstoppable freight train that was making a case to be the nation’s second-best player back in December.
Whether that involves designing more sets to get him directly involved or playing with more pace to get him out in the open floor, it needs to be a team effort rallying around their All-American candidate.
Shannon’s struggles have been far from the only reason the Illini have looked sluggish, however.
Illinois needs to be the tougher, more physical team every single night. Because it should be.
The Illini’s calling card for much of the season has been their toughness and physicality. Recently, those strengths haven’t stood out like they once did.
One of the stats that bears this out is the recent struggles finishing at the rim. In games against Maryland, Northwestern and Indiana, Illinois shot 35-for-84 at the rim. Forty-nine missed shots at the rim in three games. Take a moment to process that.
At its best, this Illinois offense lives at the rim and dominates individual matchups, whether it be with “booty ball” or simply aggressive driving. Opponents have started to adjust, packing the paint and putting more bodies around the rim to handle the Illini’s attack.
Part of that undoubtedly boils down to bad luck. But Illinois also needs to be better finishing through contact and using its physicality to convert up close at a much higher percentage. That’s led to a lot of maddening misses in close in recent weeks.
One game of missed layups is an anomaly. Two is the start of a trend. Three and it becomes time to make some changes to your approach. Generating offense hasn’t been an issue for much of the season, but converting those quality possessions into actual points has been an area of struggle.
Illinois wants to bully teams. Lately though, they’ve ran into foes who have the mindset — and personnel — to stand up for themselves. The Illini can’t afford to let teams match them physically with the way they’re built.
And that extends to both ends of the floor.
Illinois needs to replicate their early season defensive prowess. They certainly have the pieces to do so.
According to Bart Torvik, Illinois ranks 70th nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency since the start of January. In November and December, Illinois ranked 20th.
Part of those metrics can be attributed to quality of competition, sure. But the eye test backs up the Illini’s recent defensive drop off.
Particularly, Illinois has struggled guarding opposing big men and staying in front of some of the Big Ten’s top guards. Stops have been far more infrequent than they were early in the season thanks in large part to avoidable defensive breakdowns and mismatches in one-on-one situations.
Illinois has the size and length positionally and the individual defensive ability to be far better than they have been on that end through the heart of conference play. Especially if offense is going to go hot and cold at the rim, the Illini have to be able to fall back on their defense.
Brad Underwood has put together top-30 defenses in each of the last four seasons. Another lackluster outing and Illinois will fall outside that threshold.
It’s time for Illinois to get back to who they are.