Illinois (11-2, 2-0 Big Ten) is back in the top ten of the AP Top 25 Poll for the first time since the star-laden 2020-21 season. They’re ranked ninth in the country and playing their best basketball of the season, without arguably their best player, and step into hostile territory with a matchup against the best team in the nation just a day away.
So, about last week...
Just a day after Terrence Shannon Jr. was suspended, Illinois blew out Fairleigh Dickinson at home, 104-71. Dain Dainja and Justin Harmon combined for 37 points, while Coleman Hawkins notched 18 and shot 5-for-8 from deep.
In their 96-66 win over Northwestern, Illinois enjoyed their best offensive game of the season. They logged a 1.43 offensive efficiency rating, their highest of the season, and shot 62.5 percent from the field and 55.6 percent from beyond the arc if advanced metrics aren’t your thing.
“I thought our ball movement was really good,” head coach Brad Underwood said in media availability on Thursday. “We exploited some opportunities to cut and post different guys and thought we weren’t great but really good on the glass.”
Underwood’s team had 34 points in the paint against the Wildcats, including an effective 15-of-20 at the rim (dunks + layups).
No Shannon, No Problem?
The Fighting Illini have had back-to-back 30+ point wins since their leading scorer was suspended. The rest of the team has stepped up with 21.7 points per game of production now missing from the offense.
In wins over Fairleigh Dickinson and Northwestern, fifth-year senior Justin Harmon has scored 18 and 20 points while shooting 8-of-12 from deep.
“Justin is a really, really good offensive player,” Underwood said. “He’s gained my confidence.”
Marcus Domask, another grad transfer guard, has also stepped up in a big way. He scored 32 in the win against in-state rivals Northwestern and did it while shooting 11-15, too.
Underwood also provided an update on the injury status of guard Niccolo Moretti, who presumedly would have stepped into a bigger role with the absence of Shannon. Moretti has been out since Illinois’ November 19 win over Southern University.
“You want to be very clear about a foot injury,” Underwood said. “You don’t rush that.”
Moretti is going through what Underwood describes as the “back-to-play process”, attending practices and watching film.
“He’s a very mature freshman and he’s very basketball-savvy. I think all of those things will help him in his return to play,” he said.
Moretti comes from a basketball family. His father enjoyed a 12-year playing career and has been coaching since 2001. His older brother, Davide, actually played college basketball with TSJ during the Chicago native’s freshman season at Texas Tech.
Shannon has been serving an indefinite suspension since December 28 after the Douglas Co. (Kansas) District Attorney issued a warrant for his arrest and charged him with rape.
In Athletic Director Josh Whitman’s press conference addressing Shannon’s suspension before the team’s win over Fairleigh Dickinson, he detailed the process that they would go through, and that Underwood is not involved in the disciplinary process.
Underwood said that the message sent to him from Whitman was that he would let him know of any updates. He added that his current approach is to “stick to basketball and get ready for Purdue.”
“It’s a different animal, in terms of Purdue,” Underwood said looking ahead at Friday’s game against the No. 1 team in the country.
If the Boilermakers (13-1, 2-1 Big Ten) are a different animal, Zach Edey is a different beast.
“It’s such a unique situation to have a reigning national player of the year return,” Underwood said of Purdue and Zach Edey. “He’s probably more dominant than he was last year, in my opinion.”
The 7-foot-4 center averages a double-double a game, with 10.6 rebounds per game in addition to 23.1 points per game this season, which leads all players in the Power 6.
“You just don’t see seven-four and 300 pounds.”
“I think in my time, in college basketball, I’ve never seen a more dominant center,” Underwood said.
The Illinois coaching staff will have to answer the Zach Edey question, and Coleman Hawkins might be the answer. The senior is the tallest man on the Fighting Illini roster, and will likely spend the most time matched up with Edey on Friday.
“I think Coleman is one of the best bigs in the country simply because he can pop and knock down open shots,” sophomore guard Ty Rodgers said. “He’s very smart and his passing ability is great.”
Rodgers and his teammates are looking forward to playing Purdue, a team that Illinois went 0-2 against last season, at Mackey Arena
“Crazy environment. Super loud,” is how Rodgers described Mackey. “Their fans are amazing, they talk crazy and I think we like that. A lot of guys are fired up about that and we’re looking to go in there and get our get-back.”
Edey has been the focal point of Purdue basketball in recent years, but it’s crucial to remember he plays with four other players dressed in Black and Gold.
In Greek mythology, cutting off the head of the Hydra, a serpentine water monster, causes two more to grow in its place. If Purdue was beheaded last year in their first-round loss to 16-seed FDU in the tournament, they may have grown three heads back.
“Those two guards aren’t freshmen anymore,” Underwood said about guards Fletcher Loyer and Braden Smith.
He gave plaudits to Smith in particular, who is averaging 12.9 points and shooting 48.9 percent from three, saying, “Last year, he might have come off a ball screen, been open, hesitated, and looked to throw it to Zach. This year, he’s shooting.”
“I think there was such a reliance on [Edey] last year to be the guy all the time. He still is that guy, but you see him almost playing better just because their other guys are doing more,” Underwood said.
While it’s still early on in the Big Ten season, Illinois and Purdue share a few common opponents. Illinois’ two losses came against Marquette (71-64) and Tennessee (86-79). The Boilermakers played and beaten both in the Maui Invitational, 78-75 and 71-67, respectively.
Purdue’s lone loss came at the hands of Northwestern back in early December, 88-92.
“We watched it, but every game is different,” Underwood said. “There’s no doubt you’ve gotta play very, very well to beat Purdue and do it on their court.”
Illinois will travel to Purdue on Friday in West Lafayette, Indiana. Tipoff is at 7:30 p.m. Champaign time, and the game will be on FS1.