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Was Illinois Basketball’s Road Trip a Success?



Was Illinois Basketball's Road Trip a Success?
Illinois head coach Brad Underwood claps from the sidelines during an NCAA college basketball game between Tennessee and Illinois at Thompson-Boling Arena at Food City Center, Saturday, Dec. 9, 2023

Since the schedule was announced, the Illinois Men’s Basketball team’s early December road stretch was circled. A trip to the RAC against Rutgers, a NYC date with Final Four FAU, capped with a true road test against Tennessee was always going to be a challenge. Until this point, the Illini had played all their games from the comfort of the State Farm Center. If they wanted to be better than last year, then this was the perfect opportunity to show their improvement.

While they weren’t able to complete the perfect 3-0, there was a lot to take away from all three games. As with most 2-1 road trips, most of it is positive, but there are still areas of improvement.

1. Illinois Basketball needs to attack mismatches

One of the most maddening things about last year’s Illini team was their extreme volitivity. One half they’d look like an NIT team, just to flip a 15+ point deficit on its head in a manic flurry in the next. This was largely due to their heavy volume of three-point attempts despite their inefficiency from deep. As with this year, they had the defense to allow for big runs. On the road trip, Illinois Basketball’s greatest deficit was 12 points. The defense remains stout, allowing just 41% shooting in the three games. The Illini got 20-point performances from multiple players in two of the three games and never scored less than 35 points in any half. They only had two games of multiple twenty-point scorers all of last year. They shot about 40% of their attempts from three, right around the mark Brad Underwood set in the preseason.

This is a testament to the Illini’s top-end depth. Outside of Ty Rodgers, each of the Illini starters has multiple games of 20 points or more in their careers. Underwood isn’t running a lot of sets, but the Illini can limit their turnovers by attacking matchups. This can get them into trouble when they struggle to find mismatches to attack, as they did in that mentioned 12-point deficit against Tennessee. It’s impossible to complain too hard about at least 75 points in every game.

2. A Little Too Bendy

As I mentioned, the Illini defense was able to remain strong in some areas. They entered the trip ranking eighth in the country defensively on KenPom and returned at 15th. Their defensive length and ability to move and cover have held up outside of Champaign. They are still in the Top 5 nationally in defensive rebounds per game, even allowing 12 and 13 offensive rebounds to FAU and Tennessee. Terrence Shannon Jr. continues to shine on that end, with at least one block in five straight games. Rodgers provides great effort and intensity defensively, and Marcus Domask was able to mostly make do. Quincy Guerrier and Coleman Hawkins also deserve credit for their ability to patrol the paint as well as cover the perimeter.

It wasn’t all good, however. This has to be a defensive first-team. There are still moments of miscommunication, which is natural early in the season. Illinois Basketball allowed 41% shooting from three over the three games. They’ve also given up 20 or more free throws in each of those three games. In the 53-point second half against Tennessee, the Vols were in the bonus in under 5 minutes. Illinois generally plays a conservative defensive style, looking to force tough shots instead of actively disrupting the offense. If they want to play that way, they need to find a way to play physically without letting the opponent march to the line.

3. Final Draft

Colgate, Missouri, and Fairleigh Dickinson are the only games left before conference play starts. Currently, there is a very clear top seven. The five starters, Luke Goode and Justin Harmon all played over 20 minutes per game in this stretch. These are all the Illini’s most experienced players, and it’s no surprise they have the trust of Underwood. They’re going to need to continue to improve the connection between those seven, three of whom are still just nine games into their Illinois basketball career.

This trip proved that Illinois basketball can play with anyone in the country and have a couple of ways to win games. This bodes well for the Big Ten schedule, which looks a little squishier than it did in the preseason. Outside of Purdue, each of the other Big Ten teams have all shown major flaws, with Michigan State especially disappointing. It’s going to take continued improvement not just from the starters but getting good minutes from their currently fringe players will be needed to topple Purdue in the Big Ten race.

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Brian is a former sports writer for the Daily Illini who has been covering Illinois Basketball for over 5 years. Brian is now the lead basketball reporter for Armchair Illini, the go-to source for Illinois athletics news. He has had work published on Bleacher Report, Verbal Commits, USA Today and more.