CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Halfway through his team’s Big Ten season, Brad Underwood is happy with where the Fighting Illini are for more reasons than just their impressive road victory over Ohio State.
“I like where we’re at because we’re whole again. We’re finally back in a position where we have our roster,” Underwood said on Saturday.
On top of Terrence Shannon Jr.’s suspension, Illinois has been without Coleman Hawkins, Amani Hansberry and Niccolo Moretti due to injury this season. “We played a lot to this point without somebody.”
Hansberry and fellow freshman Dra Gibbs-Lawhorn logged just three and four minutes, respectively, in the win over the Buckeyes, but they were minutes that left a positive impression on their teammates and Underwood.
“I think the last game, Dra and Amani came in and gave us some great minutes and they gave us a boost, honestly,” said sophomore guard Ty Rodgers. “Even though Dra got caught with a foul call, he gave us a lot of intensity and I feel like after that, we went on a run defensively.”
DGL defensive intensity— Hoop Informatics (@HoopInformatics) January 31, 2024
Gets called for a foul at the end. pic.twitter.com/bJYbfPraky
With 3:27 left in the first half, DGL was matched up one-on-one with Ohio State’s Evan Mahaffey. With Rodgers on the bench getting a breather, the 6-foot-1 Illinois guard was tasked with guarding Mahaffey, who stands at 6-foot-6 and 200 pounds.
“He picked up a foul on a Mahaffey post-up, but his intensity and his willingness to not get backed down was fabulous,” Underwood said.
With a little Rust-eze — and an insane amount of luck — you too can look like me
This year’s squad has seen a lot of rust-shaking. From illnesses to injuries and everything in between, the team has had trouble staying fresh.
It took until the ninth game of the season, after missing three straight due to knee tendinitis, to score in double figures. It took four games for Terrence Shannon Jr. to match his previous season average after being reinstated from suspension.
“Ohio State is, I think, fourth in the country in fewest points [given up] in transition,” Underwood said. “Terrence changes that.”
Illinois had 11 of its 46 second-half points come in transition on Tuesday.
“He was very close to having a 30-point night in a night that we didn’t run much to him,” Underwood said.
While TSJ isn’t quite Lightning McQueen fast, few are as fast as him during a fastbreak on the college basketball court.
“When he’s playing like that, I feel like it makes our whole team just unguardable,” Rodgers said.
Power of the Portal
As of Friday, teams ranked in the top-10 are 25-29 against unranked opponents on the road. When asked what the recent rise of parity and a closing of the gap from the bottom to the top has been, Underwood was quick to identify why.
“Portal and age,” he said. “If you can stay old, you’ve got the greatest discrepancy in the history of college sports.”
Underwood’s team currently has five players who are either graduate students or fifth-year students.
“What, a football player got a ninth year? A ninth year? I mean, he’s as old as Loren,” Underwood said, smiling.
Loren Tate, 92, was present on Sunday, and has been covering Illinois football and basketball for the local News-Gazette since 1966.
“I think you find continuity, and you see why Purdue is probably, in my opinion, one of the best teams in not just our league but in the country is they do have some continuity and they’re old, they’ve gotten older,” Underwood said.
Marcus Domask, Quincy Guerrier and Justin Harmon round out a trio of fifth-year transfers who have added age and experience to this year’s Illinois squad. While transfers are one way to add to the ongoing brew of continuity and age, Underwood believes that the process begins with the players coming out of high school.
“I think there’s still tremendous value in having freshmen, getting them better, getting your culture set, establishing what you are,” Underwood said.
He’s previously spoken highly of Luke Goode and Coleman Hawkins, who are the only players to have been in Champaign for at least three years, as big culture guys.
“I think in a lot of ways, they do have to teach even your newcomers no matter how old they are and what your culture is and what you stand for.”
Nebraska and Northwestern share a few similarities. They both play their best basketball at home. In Big Ten play, the Cornhuskers are 6-0 when playing in Lincoln, and 0-5 on the road. The Wildcats are 5-0 in Evanston, but 1-4 on the road.
The Jekyll-and-Hyde nature of their performances is hard to miss. Northwestern was blown out by 30 at State Farm Center, but won an OT thriller in Welsh-Ryan Arena. Nebraska has taken down the likes of Purdue and Wisconsin at home, but has a quadrant-3 loss at Rutgers.
Underwood says the similarities stop there.
“It’s really hard to compare anybody to Northwestern because nobody has Boo [Buie],” Underwood said. “Just like nobody has [Purdue’s] Zach Edey.”
Underwood described the Cornhuskers as one of the best teams in the Big Ten, pointing out their wins over Purdue, Northwestern and Wisconsin. “That immediately puts you in the upper echelon of this league.”
The three-ball has been one of the Cornhuskers’ deadliest weapons this season. They average 9.5 made per game from downtown this season, leading the Big Ten despite shooting it at 36.3%, good for fifth in the conference.
The volume of Nebraska’s deep shooting is something on the Illinois radar.
“Our whole thing is to take away threes and force tough twos, so it’s definitely something that we’re scouting,” Rodgers said. “We know we have to do a good job of that in order to win.”
Against Nebraska, Illinois has a chance to vault itself back into contention for the Big Ten title. After Wisconsin’s loss earlier this week in Lincoln, the Fighting Illini are within a game and half a game of both Wisconsin and Purdue.
The Fighting Illini and the Cornhuskers will tip off at State Farm Center on Sunday at 5:30 p.m.
The game will be on Big Ten Network.