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Illinois Basketball: Making Sense of this Team



To say this season has been a rollercoaster for Illinois Basketball would be an understatement.

Rollercoasters are mostly fun with a few scares, and this season has felt more scary than fun at times. But it appears they’re back on track. Is this the Illinois team that’s here to stay? Will Michigan State beat them by 20? Every possible result is on the table when the Illini take court, so what do we make of the first 16 games, and more specifically, making sense of the last few weeks? What’s real? What’s not? Let’s get into it…

Disaster Averted…?

A couple weeks ago, it really felt like the sky was falling. Illinois lost another basketball game by double digits, this time to Northwestern. Shortly after, Skyy Clark announced he was stepping away from the program, and there was some real discussion about this season spiraling out of control. Could Brad Underwood rally this group? Does he still have the reigns? Has he lost control? Well, it appears that the total disaster has been avoided in the two games since the Northwestern loss.

The Three Point Line

Before beating Wisconsin and Nebraska, Illinois was shooting 27% from three over their last three games against high major basketball opponents (Penn State, Missouri, Northwestern) on 27 attempts a game (2nd highest in the B1G this season). On the defensive side of things, Illinois was allowing opponents to shoot a whopping 46% from three on an average of about 21 attempts a game.

The three point line in general, both shooting from it and defending it, seemed to be a huge issue that needed to be resolved quickly. Against Nebraska, the 3 point shooting wasn’t great. In fact, it was more in line with the PSU, Missouri and NW performances. However against Wisconsin, Illinois shot nearly 50% from three on 20 attempts.


Turnovers were also a huge problem, and that might be putting it lightly. Illinois had 15 turnovers against Northwestern, 17 turnovers against Missouri, and 12 against Penn State. They were able to bring that number down a bit against Wisconsin and Nebraska, with 10 and 11 turns respectively.

While the number of turnovers weren’t great during that ugly stretch, it was actually the kind of turnovers for Illinois that made them an even bigger problem. It would be one thing for Illinois to throw the basketball away out of bounds, but many of Illinois’ turnovers in the 3 games we’re talking a lot about were live ball turnovers. Meaning, Illinois was putting itself in a lot of bad positions defensively, leading to easy layups or threes for the opponent. Lowering the amount of turnovers is a sign of improvement, but I would also like to see them lower the kinds of turnovers they are committing.


Brad Underwood has talked in length (and even made a fart noise) about the leadership on this team. At times this year, it has been excellent. As a whole though, it’s something this team is lacking when looking at the teams that came before. There’s no Ayo Dosunmu or Trent Frazier. Guys who refuse to settle for mediocrity. Did those players always have great games? No, but you knew they were holding themselves to a higher standard than even we were as fans. Against Penn State, Missouri and Northwester, “leadership” was nowhere to be found.

If it’s not coming from Coleman Hawkins, Terrence Shannon or Matthew Mayer, you’re relying on freshman or guys who have played limited minutes. And credit where its due, Jayden Epps has stepped up when others simply refused to, but “leadership” has to come from the guys who have been there on this team. For a stretch, those guys were nowhere to be found. At one point, Terrence Shannon looked like a shell of the player he was. Shooting 11-44 from three and refusing to assert himself. Thankfully, he’s returned to the guy who looked like an NBA player early in the season. The same could be said for Coleman Hawkins, a guy who looked completely lost at both ends of the floor, seems to have found himself once again.

Can these guys continue this tear that they’re on? I’m not sure, but we know what it looks like if they don’t, and it’s not pretty.

Setting Expectations

After the Texas game, I think many of us thought maybe this team was going to be better than anticipated this early. Could they be a 2 seed in March? Could they win the Big Ten? Unforunately, their play since then has been quite the mixed bag, leaving many of us wondering where this team is going to end up when all is said and done. I think the goal is still the same: get to the second weekend of the Big Dance. That’s achievable regardless of what seed Illinois earns itself. So I think a safe and reasonable expectation the rest of the way is simply to make the NCAA Tournament. Anything more than that would be a gift at this point. And hey, maybe they’ve figured it out, and I hope they have. If that’s the case, there’s still plenty of time to have a special season.


Zach Leslie is one of original members of Armchair Illini, your go-to sources of University of Illinois news. He has sports content published on Bleacher Report, Verbal Commits and more. He is also one of the most talented videographers in Illini Nation and has published work on some of the most famous Cinema Review sites such as LetterBoxd.