Illinois Basketball this season has been an absolute rollercoaster. Whether it be beating number 2 Texas at Madison Square Garden thanks to massive performances by Matthew Mayer and Jayden Epps, or a blowout loss at the hands of a mediocre Penn State team at home, it is absolutely impossible to tell which Illinois team is going to show up to play.
Will it be all-american level Terrance Shannon Jr. who shot the lights out against UCLA early in the season? Or will it be the Terrance Shannon that can seemingly go minutes without even attempting to touch the ball? Will it be flamethrower Matthew Mayer, who has never seen a shot he does not like? Or will it be icebox Matthew Mayer, who has also never seen a shot he does not like?
However, even though it is frustrating at times, that is exactly what makes this team an absolute delight to watch each game. Some days, they legitimately look like a national title contender. Just this past Saturday, they went to Wisconsin and absolutely beat the brakes off of the Badgers. Yes, Wisconsin is not that good, but for the majority of my life the Kohl Center has been a house of horrors for the Illini. But if I’m being honest, I would not have been surprised if they would have gone in there and gotten blown out. Especially because they were wearing the road blues.
This team is starting to really catch their footing though. After a disastrous 0-3 start to conference play, with losses to Penn State, Maryland, and Northwestern, they have suddenly ripped off 6 out of 7 conference games, and are really starting to find their groove and are beating some good teams.
It’s easy to forget, but before their ridiculously hot start where they were beating multiple top 10 teams and just playing amazing basketball, it was expected that this team was going to take time to get it going. Yes, they are ridiculously talented, with an amazing transfer class and the number 11 freshman class in the nation, but other than RJ Melendez, Coleman Hawkins, and a now injured Luke Goode, these guys had never even played together. They are also the 2nd youngest team in the entire Power 5.
Yes it was a really hard stretch of basketball to watch after the Texas win, specifically the blowout loss they took to rival Missouri, but they are starting to find their identity. They have finally figured out what works for them and what does not instead of throwing stuff at the wall and hoping it sticks (which luckily resulted in multiple quad 1 wins that will look golden come Selection Sunday).
There will be more growing pains. That’s a result of a complete roster overhaul and life after Ayo/Kofi was never going to be easy. But this team is starting to look like a real threat come tournament time. They’ve got a few winnable games this week against Nebraska and at Iowa, along with hosting Minnesota that can help push them towards the top of the Big Ten.
While a conference title is still in play, to me this home stretch of conference games is going to be a great way for them to get ready for March. Illinois has been a great regular season team for the past 4 seasons now, but this is a time for Brad Underwood to get his guys ready to make a run in the dance. They’ve got work to do, but this team has the DNA to be serious threats no matter who they play.
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