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Illinois is slowly exorcizing last season’s letdown

How has this team exceeded last season’s performance?

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: JAN 30 Illinois at Ohio State Photo by Jason Mowry/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The 2023-24 Fighting Illini have been a pleasant upgrade over last season’s squad.

I can personally say that my systolic and diastolic blood pressure measures are down significantly.

Sure, there have been some awkward moments and bad losses, but there hasn’t been a moment of universal panic.

Brad Underwood hasn’t made any press conference fart noises.

There has not been a single controversy over phantom punches, energy drinks, in-season transfers, or a dearth of leadership.

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: JAN 27 Indiana at Illinois Photo by James Black/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The team has overcome the internal strife of the loss of a teammate to a perilous suspension. They came together and fought through adversity and didn’t crumble into the selfish hero ball habits of prior seasons.

This team is built differently. Literally. It’s got a roster full of veteran character guys and leaders who fill specific roles and execute better.

But how much better is this year’s squad? Heading into this weekend’s showdown with the Cornhuskers, the Illini look vastly superior to their previous incarnation.

The Illini didn’t shoot too well last year. The poor shooting was compounded by awful shot selection.

“Hey, you know that shot we’re ridiculously inefficient at converting? Let’s shoot that shot all the time,” I imagine some coach said in the huddle of each game last season.

The Illini have improved their three-point percentage from 30.8% to 34.4%. That increase is partly due to…having better shooters on the roster. I know, stunning.

But more importantly, it gives a clue about potential future roster construction. The reason some of the players are better shooters isn’t just technique and skill, but experience. Players who have been there and done everything have the ball in their hands far more often and are the ones selecting the right shots in the right moments.

The priority is to get good shots, not get the best available shot seven seconds into the shot clock. This philosophical and personnel shift has enhanced perimeter productivity year-over-year.

All told, Illinois’ field goal percentage has risen from 44.9% to 46.3%. Greater efficiency to be sure, but think about how much better that number could be.

  • Ty Rodgers’ early season struggles to score under the basket bring this number down.
  • Dain Dainja’s inconsistency from possession to possession brings this number down.
  • Quincy Guerrier playing more on the perimeter early on brings this number down.

There will be opportunities to increase interior scoring input as young players evolve and veteran players settle into their natural roles. But the improvement is clearly reflected in the Illin’s current 16-5 record.

Also, this team has improved its rebounding from 38 RPG to 43 RPG. This has become a strength despite the roster not having a consistently effective “traditional big man.”

(So all of you old heads out there who think a team needs a successful back-to-the-basket big to succeed, maybe consider stepping into the 21st century.)

Nebraska v Maryland Photo by G Fiume/Getty Images

Nebraska is no joke this year. Fred Hoiberg is a good college coach who certainly belongs at this level. This game will be no cakewalk.

Illinois has fallen asleep at the wheel a few times this season despite the generally rosy picture.

But this is a game where the early season Terrence Shannon Jr. and the mostly excellent recent form of Coleman Hawkins may be necessary to finish the job.

Remember how John Madden used to say “big players make big plays in big situations?”

Sure, it was a redundant soundbite.

But at this point in the season, every game is a big situation. And Shannon, Hawkins, and Marcus Domask have to take the reins on the court. The complementary pieces and the emerging, precocious freshmen can provide support and bursts of stardom and intensity.

But in the end, it’s star time in Champaign and the Illini stars have the best assortment of weapons this roster has had in the past decade.