2023-24 ITH Season Preview: Illinois Fighting Illini
With the start of college basketball season approaching, we’ll look at the conference at large and Indiana’s roster over the next month.
Today, our team previews continue with Illinois.
Despite losing several key contributors from last season’s NCAA tournament team, Illinois enters the season with hopes of another trip to March Madness.
The Fighting Illini lost Matthew Mayer (graduation), Jayden Epps (transfer) and RJ Melendez (transfer), but return arguably the league’s second-best player in Terrence Shannon Jr. Illinois got a head start on the season with an offseason trip to Spain that included three exhibitions and ten practices.
The expectation was that Shannon’s stop in Champaign would be for one season after arriving prior to last season from Texas Tech, but the do-it-all guard is back for a fifth college season.
At 6-foot-6, Shannon can play both guard spots but is better suited playing on the wing and in transition. The lefty averaged 17.2 points, 4.6 rebounds and 2.8 assists last season for Brad Underwood. While Shannon likely could have been a second-round NBA draft pick, NIL and another opportunity to play for his home state school won out.
Joining Shannon in the starting backcourt will likely be Ty Rodgers, a 6-foot-6 sophomore. Rodgers, a Michigan native, averaged 3.3 points, four rebounds and shot 52 percent from the field last season. He’ll need to do a much better job as a distributor, but his size and strength at the point guard spot could make him a difficult cover for smaller opponents.
Guard depth will come from freshman Dra Gibbs-Lawhorn, sophomore Sencire Harris, redshirt freshman Niccolo Moretti and Justin Harmon, a grad transfer from Utah Valley.
Gibbs-Lawhorn was a top 150 recruit who initially committed to Purdue. Harris is an athletic guard who can provide energy off the bench. Harmon, a Chicago native, averaged 13.9 points and made 35 percent of his 3s last season at Utah Valley.
In the frontcourt, Coleman Hawkins and Dain Dainja will occupy the starting four and five spots for Underwood. The 6-foot-10 Hawkins is a matchup nightmare at the four, but he’s struggled with consistency over his first three seasons. Hawkins averaged 9.9 points, 6.3 rebounds, three assists, 1.2 blocks and 1.1 steals last season, but Illinois needs him to elevate his game to another level.
Dainja played just 20.5 minutes per game last season but averaged 9.5 points and 5.5 rebounds per game. His size – 6-foot-9 and 270 pounds – allows him to carve out space in the paint. Dainja made 63.6 percent of his 2s last season.
Freshman Amani Hansberry is the highest ranked incoming recruit for the Illini. The 6-foot-8 Baltimore native was a top 70 recruit who is said to have excellent hands and footwork near the basket.
Luke Goode, an Indiana native, returns to provide wing shooting. Oregon transfer Quincy Guerrier provides another frontcourt scoring option at 6-foot-8. And Southern Illinois transfer Marcus Domask earned first-team All-Missouri Valley Conference honors last season. Domask, a 6-foot-6 wing, has scored more than 1,600 career points over four seasons and is a career 35.5 percent 3-point shooter.
Depth should be a strength for Illinois on the wing and at the forward spots, but the primary concern is solidifying the point guard spot following the transfer of Epps.
“I came away from Spain loving our depth,” Underwood said at the program’s media day. “That depth always has a way to play itself out a little bit. We’ll see how that works, but we have tremendous experience coming off the bench, starting, whatever it is, one through 11.”
Bottom Line: Underwood has a solid returning trio to build around in Shannon Jr., Hawkins and Dainja. And he’s done an excellent job of assembling experienced pieces from the transfer portal in Domask, Guerrier and Harmon. The key will be getting solid play from Rodgers at the point guard position. If he can capably play the position, it will allow Shannon Jr. to play on the wing, where he’s best suited. Illinois should be an NCAA tournament team once again and could exceed expectations if Hawkins is more consistent.
Quotable: “It’s about execution and staying within what we do. It’s more about having an identity where we know we need to get a good shot every time. Are we still going to play fast? Yeah, we still want to score in under seven seconds. That’s one of this team’s great assets. It’s our ability to run, our ability to play with tempo. We have to execute. We have to be able to go a little deeper into the shot clock, and execute, and not take that contested 3. Those are all things that we’ve talked about ad nauseam already with this group.” – Underwood at Illinois media day last week.