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Illini Basketball: Underwhelming or Overrated?



/p22 is called for a foul on Illinois Fighting Illini guard RJ Melendez (15) during the Big Ten Men s Basketball Tournament game, Thursday, March 9, 2023, at United Center in Chicago. Penn State Nittany Lions won 79-76. Psuill030923 Am12643

Illinois dropped their opener in the Big Ten Tournament for the second year in a row. The Illini suffered their 6th loss in 10 games to the hands of the Penn State Nittany Lions. Penn State won all three meetings against the Illini this year. On a positive note, this was the closest that Illinois has gotten to beating the Nittany Lions, however, no one can ignore the disappointment surrounding this Illini team. As always, Illinois Twitter was in a frenzy after the disappointing loss. Many have pointed out how disappointing this team has been and how Brad Underwood has underachieved this year. I wanted to dig into both arguments. Is this Illini team underwhelming or was this fan base overexcited?

Underwhelming team

This is a team that beat UCLA and Texas at the beginning of the season. They were seconds away from beating a strong Virginia and Maryland team as well. With a talented freshman class, Underwood added two extremely talented graduate transfers from the Big 12. Matthew Mayer was a key cog on a national championship team. Terrence Shannon was coming from a winning program at Texas Tech to take his draft stock to the next level. Additionally, players like Coleman Hawkins and RJ Melendez showed flashes of next-level talent. Things were looking up for the Illini as they hoped to show that without Kofi Cockburn, they can play a versatile and up-tempo game that can succeed on the biggest stage.

None of that has worked out so far. Illinois started 0-3 in conference play and got absolutely blasted by a tough Missouri squad. In short, their offense looked robotic and limited. Their defense was too bipolar and had too many lapses. Overall, this team had too many inconsistencies to capitalize on their talent which clearly showed that they can beat the best in the country. Finishing 11-9 in a rather weak Big Ten and never putting together a string of solid back-to-back games is disappointing for a team that has multiple pros and talented pieces.

On top of that, Illinois has lost 6 of their last 10 and has failed to win back-to-back games since the end of January. It would not surprise ANYONE if they lost their first-round game in the NCAA tournament. 

Overexcited fans.

Perhaps Illini nation overrated this team. Perhaps the two aforementioned wins, which are now your saving grace for being in the tournament, were this team’s biggest curse. To take a step back, every single important piece on this team is either a new player or in a brand new role. To remind everyone, Coleman Hawkins, Luke Goode and RJ Melendez were your only key returning pieces. Goode and Melendez averaged single-digit minutes per game last year, and Coleman Hawkins had varying minutes throughout an up-and-down season. There are three true freshmen that Illinois is relying heavily on. On top of that, the two transfers are not only new to Illinois but new to their role. Terrence Shannon was a key piece, however a complimentary piece on Texas Tech. Matthew Mayer was also a complimentary piece. Dain Dainja is playing his first bout of college basketball in three years.

Both of these players left their respective spots to take on the spotlight; something they have never had experience doing. In college basketball, role identification is so important. Look at some of the most successful John Beilein-coached Michigan teams. All of those teams that made the Elite eight and beyond had pieces that were in the big moments before. Winning in college basketball requires older players or at least one piece that has ‘been there before’. Look at all of the one-seeds in the NCAA tournament. Kansas, Houston, Purdue. All three of these teams have veteran presences.

Not all of this is about players. They also have coaches who have been there. Unfortunately for Illinois, they have neither of those. However, until they establish themselves with continuity, it is hard to see them breaking from the path that this current team has led on.

Alex is the Owner of, your go-to source for in depth coverage of the Illinois Fighting Illini. Alex is also the lead content creator and lead editor of all articles on Armchair Illini. He has had articles featured in top media publications like Bleacher Report, YardBarker, Verbal Commits, CBS Sports and more.