Illinois coach Brad Underwood is confident he has addressed the issues that caused his team to underachieve last season despite finishing 20-13 and making its third straight appearance in the NCAA Tournament.
The Illini have more leaders. More depth. More experience. And more of a commitment to executing on offense instead of settling for a contested triple. With all that in place, Underwood wants his players to embrace his “every day guys” approach.
“Being an every day guy is about being accountable and responsible every day to do the job you have to do, no matter the circumstances,” he said. “That’s life. We’re all accountable. We have to do our job even when we don’t feel great or we’re tired.
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“I told the guys even if you had to stay up all night to do an English paper, for those 2 1/2 hours the next day at practice, your teammates need you to be accountable and responsible," he added. "If nothing else, I hope our players learn to be an every day guy from being in our program.”
With eight players back from last season, the No. 25-ranked Illini have one of the most experienced rosters in the nation.
The group of returnees is led by Terrence Shannon Jr. and Coleman Hawkins, who each passed on NBA possibilities for another season. Shannon’s unexpected return was the biggest news; the 6-foot-6 guard is one of three players on the 10-member squad who were first team all-Big Ten selections last season, joining Purdue’s Zach Edey of Boo Buie of Northwestern.
Shannon played in 31 of Illinois’ 33 games last season and averaged 17.2 points, seventh in the Big Ten. He scored in double figures in all but four games, with 11 outings of 20 or more points.
Underwood is counting on Shannon to provide leadership once again in his final season. He doesn’t want him to be alone.
“Leadership is hard. It’s getting harder to find in today’s age,” Underwood said. “I told our guys, ‘Sometimes to be a leader, you have to tell people you really care about something they don’t want to hear.’ This team has some natural leaders. They need to step up.”
The 6-10 Hawkins averaged 9.9 points, 6.3 rebounds and 3.0 assists in 33 games last season, all career highs.
Sophomore guards Ty Rodgers and Sencire Harris, junior forward Dain Dainja and junior guard Luke Goode also are expected to play prominent roles.
Three fifth-year transfers -- Marcus Domask (Southern Illinois), Quincy Guerrier (Oregon/Syracuse) and Justin Harmon (Utah Valley) -- came to Illinois during the offseason.
“We were very purposeful with what we went after in the portal,” Underwood said. “We have multiple 24-year-olds this year. When you can put 24-year-olds out there instead of 18-year-olds, that gives you an advantage physically and experience wise.”
Underwood thought his team shot too many contested triples in its half-court offense last season. That concern has been addressed.
“We still want to score in under seven seconds,” he said. “That’s one of our best assets. Our ability to run and play with tempo. But we also have to go a little deeper into the shot clock sometimes and execute our offense. We’ve talked about that ad nauseum.”
BACK IN THE TOP 25
This is the fourth straight year that the Illini are ranked in the preseason AP Top 25, the longest stretch in program history. Illinois was No. 8 in 2020-21, No. 11 in 2021-22 and No. 23 in 2022-23.
BIG TEN DOMINANCE
Illinois is the winningest team in the Big Ten over the past five years, with a 55-25 regular-season record in conference play.
The Illini have four straight top-five regular-season finishes in the conference. They piled up a league-record 16 regular-season wins and won the Big Ten regular-season and tournament titles in 2021, and they won 15 games en route to the Big Ten regular-season championship in 2022.
The 55 regular-season Big Ten wins are the most over a four-year stretch in program history.
Illinois’ schedule currently features six top-25 opponents. In addition to No. 3 Purdue and No. 4 Michigan State out of the Big Ten, the Illini will also face No. 5 Marquette, No. 9 Tennessee and No. 10 Florida Atlantic. Illinois will open at home Nov. 6 against Eastern Illinois.