As we enter the fall season and college football gets underway, college basketball is right around the corner. As always, to prepare you for the season, Land-Grant Holy Land will be publishing Big Ten Team Previews and Ohio State Basketball Player Previews, starting now with the Team Previews. First up, we have the Illinois Fighting Illini.
Team: Illinois Fighting Illini
Head coach: Brad Underwood, Seventh Season, 114-79 (66-52)
2022-23 record: 20-13 (11-9)
All-time record against Ohio State: 71-63
Returners: Coleman Hawkins, Terrence Shannon Jr., Dain Dainja, Ty Rodgers, Sencire Harris, Luke Goode, Niccolo Moretti
Departures: Skyy Clark to Louisville, Jayden Epps to Georgetown, Brandon Lieb to Illinois State, RJ Melendez to Georgia, Matthew Mayer
Newcomers: Amani Hansberry, Dra-Gibbs Lawhorn, Marcus Domask, Justin Harmon, Quincy Guerrier, Jeremiah Williams
No team in the Big Ten had better luck when it came to NBA Draft decisions than Illinois. With Coleman Hawkins and Terrance Shannon Jr. returning, the Fighting Illini have a chance to have a successful season. If they had headed to the NBA, the Illini would be replacing two of its best players and, more importantly, two experienced and versatile guys.
The Illini have a good recruiting class, ranked 37th in the country and fifth in the Big Ten behind Michigan State, Ohio State, Indiana, and Maryland. But they likely do not have a top guy who will come in and contribute immediately like they have had in some years past.
Shannon Jr. will be a favorite for All-Big Ten First Team in the preseason, and if Zach Edey does not repeat as Big Ten Player of the Year, Shannon will be a popular pick to dethrone him. He also helps answer the question the Illini have at the point guard position, because he will have the ball in his hands early and often.
Another person who needs to take a jump for the Fighting Illini is Dain Dainja. Dainja took a solid step forward last season, and now he will be looking to become one of the top big men in the conference.
Illinois has a solid roster, and they looked good in their overseas games, but the point guard position is going to be the question mark. Skyy Clark came into the program as the highly touted recruit who was going to run the position until he left for the NBA, with Jayden Epps ready to go right behind him. However, in the current state of college basketball, Clark is now at Louisville, Epps is at Georgetown, and the Fighting Illini are thin at the most important position on the court.
Ty Rodgers is a good player, but he is not a natural point guard, and while Sencire Harris can play good minutes, he is likely not ready to run the offense. Terrance Shannon Jr. will have the ball in his hands a lot, and he will run the point at times. Dra-Gibbs Lawhorn has solid potential, but it is a lot to ask a true freshman to immediately step in and play the point guard position at a high level.
Coleman Hawkins has always been an above-average defender who can be switchable, can guard the perimeter, and can guard multiple positions. However, he needs to take the next step on offense, particularly in efficiency, and become the true second option on the team to help Shannon Jr. on that end of the basket.
Illinois is talented, and there is no question they are well-coached, but it feels like they are missing one piece, especially on offense. If one of the freshmen or transfers like Quincy Guerrier or Jeremiah Williams can step in and take on more of an offensive role than they are expected, that could vault them into the top five in the conference. If not, they could struggle with consistency throughout the season.