With the 2022-23 season almost over, many fans are conflicted in their opinions of the University of Illinois Men's Basketball. Not just now, but in the immediate future!
After an offseason that was almost a complete rebuild, many fans were split about the future of the Illini including this season. After last year and the earlier-than-expected exit from the postseason, The defections from the program were notable up and down the lineup. There were the unavoidable departures of Seniors, guys entering the draft, and 4 transfers
That left Illinois with basically one returning full-time starter in Coleman Hawkins and two prominent bench players in R.J. Melendez and Luke Goode, and mid-season transfer last year in Dain Dainjia, and three 4 Star incoming Freshmen in Sincere Harris, Jaden Epps, and Ty Rodgers. Later they would add transfers, Terrance Shannon Jr. and Matthew Meyer. and late signee and Former Kentucky commit Sky Clark.
Living up to the hype?
Many reports people were seeing centered on the talent and upside of the team. particularly the talents of Shannon, Meyer, and the incoming Freshmen. Obviously, the ceiling was high. While some questions did arise like the lack of experience at the Point Guard and how they were going to replace the loss in points, and rebounds from the departure of Kofi Cockburn, Trent Frazier, Alphonso Plummer, and Jacob Grandison. Then there was who would step up to be the leader. I think there were too many expectations placed on the team that may have been a little unrealistic as I don't think they figured in the youth factor.
The roller coaster ride
The Illinois basketball season has been a season of ups and downs. Despite Meyer having some early season struggles the Illini got off to a 6-1 start, which included an early non-conference win over #8 UCLA in the Continental Tire Main Event in Las Vegas,
Then a loss to Maryland, a win in the Jimmy V classic over #2 Texas. but it was only a tease as the Illini went 3-4 over a 7-game stretch. R J Melendez went into a horrid slump, and Clark started to struggle and ultimately left the program. The Illini had to make lineup adjustments, and things seemed to get better and the team got on a roll. Leading to another streak of 6-1. Then multiple players had injuries including three concussions. In the last 10 games of the season, the team went 5-5 and dropped the first game of the Big Ten Tournament to Penn State.
What went wrong?
The three-point shooting issue.
Aside from injuries slumps and defections, if there is one issue you could point to as a hot button, it has to be shooting behind the arc. As a team last year, the Illini shot 44.8% from the field and 35.9 percent from the arc. This year, while the overall Field Goal Percentage is up at 45.1% The Illini, are 5% points lower from the three-point arc at 30.9% this season.
The Illini have players that can hit the three just not at a rate that is consistent or particularly worrisome for other teams.
Colman Hawkins is a career 27.9 shooter from the arc, yet he has taken 126 3-point attempts with many of his attempts coming from 25 feet and beyond the arc.
R J Melendez showed promise from three last year in limited chances. 9-15 (60%) because of his mid-season slump is shooting 25.3% 22-87, although He is shooting 37.5% in his last 6 games.
Terrance Shannon Jr. is close to his career 35.1% average, down slightly to 32.7%
Matt Meyer started slow at 25% in the first 7 games, Then seemed to find his stroke shooting 42.1% over the next 12
games only to revert back over the next 12 games shooting 32.7% which included 25.8% over the last three regular season games.
Jayden Epps is shooting better than he did in High School(25.7%) he is only shooting 30.3% for the Illini.
Sincere Harris is only shooting 31.7% from the arc.
The only three-point bright spot is Luke Goode who shot 37.2% last year and is shooting about the same 37.5%. So, it does appear that he is showing no ill effects of the foot injury.
A lot of the issue is in not only the amount of three the team takes but the type of threes. Guys like Shannon, Epps, and Harris are much better at creating shots than setting up on the wing or taking the first open three they get. Hawkins needs to learn his range and not fire from 25 ft plus. While past Illini teams could make 3-point shooting a big weapon this year's team would seem to be better off using it as an enhancement to the game and concentrating on driving and slashing the basket than trying to hit a bullseye.
Who leads the Show?
After the departure of Andre Curbelo, what Illinois lacked was a true Point Guard this season. Enter Freshman Sky Clark, but he would leave before the Big Ten Season got into full swing. Jayden Epps did take over as the primary ball handler but he is more of a combo guard as is Sincere Harris. Others like Rodgers and Shannon, run the offense as well, but they are not true Point Guards either. The lack of an effective, experienced ball handler shows itself in high turnovers at times and is part of the bad shot selection I mentioned earlier, as well as the inconsistency of play.
The Youth factor
It has been the youth I think that has led to the Jekyll and Hyde effect we have seen out of Illinois this season. With three Freshmen, one Redshirt Freshman, and two Sophomores. The lack of experienced depth has been a large factor. That is why I think older teams like Missouri, Virginia, Maryland, Northwestern, and even Penn St. have given Illinois so much trouble.
At times the Illinois offense looks like a national championship contender. Like when they came from behind to topple UCLA and Texas. Other times it resembles a pickup game on the playground such as in losses to Missouri, Penn St, and Ohio St. In a number of games this year it seems like they have had trouble putting two halves together. Being dominated one half or part of a half only to come roaring back looking like a Final Four team, or starting strong only to let the other team back in the game.
Some have cited what they perceive as a lack of ability to adjust by the coaching staff in particular Head Coach Brad Underwood. While the coach does have and bears the ultimate responsibility for the team's performance. I think dealing with 7 new additions to the team and 6 players who are playing significant minutes who are Freshmen or Sophomores can't be an easy thing to do.
Along with that Underwood puts a lot of faith and trust in his players to execute and adjust on the fly as needed. AT times with youth and inexperience, it doesn't always go the way you want.
As far as the Tournament is concerned I think Illinois can be a one-and-done or a possible elite Eight. Against Arkansas, the Illinois defense could be the key as the Razorbacks come in sporting an 18% turnover rate. If they can play a complete game I do believe the Illini can beat Kansas. The teams in the next pod down I think are all beatable. However, I don't see them getting past the bottom half of that bracket. As for the future going into next year experience at the point and better three-point shooting should be the priority. And If Hawkins goes pro they could need inside help as well.
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See you next time!