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Thursday, August 31, 2023

Illinois Preview, 2023-24

Illinois Fighting Illini

November 14, 2023, State Farm Center

Head Coach: Brad Underwood (223-106 overall, 114-79 at Illinois)

Three-Year NET Average: 17.7

Three-Year kenpom Average: 13.7

Projected 2023-24 T-Rank: 29

Projected Starters: PG Marcus Domask (6'6" 5th), SG Ty Rodgers (6'6" So), SF Terrence Shannon (6'6" 5th), PF Quincy Guerrier (6'8" 5th), C Coleman Hawkins (6'10" Sr)


Coleman Hawkins rocks the rim at Fiserv in 2021

Photo by Mitchell Layton | Getty Images

TRIVIA TIME! Before we begin, when was the last time Marquette defeated a high-major opponent on the road in November? We'll get to the answer shortly. Now back to your regularly scheduled preview...

Illinois fans must've felt like they were on a roller-coaster last year. They started the season 9-5 (0-3 Big 10) and Brad Underwood was questioning the team's leadership and effort in December. They found their form after star recruit Skyy Clark transferred in January. Illinois had a red hot finish to January, going 7-1 through the end of the month, but closed the season with a 4-7 stretch including losses in their final three games. They lost Matthew Mayer to graduation and point guard Jayden Epps to the portal, but returned Terrence Shannon and Coleman Hawkins, both of whom flirted with the NBA Draft. They also added a trio of fifth year seniors in Marcus Domask, Justin Harmon, and Quincy Guerrier.

Few teams will start the year with a lineup as experienced as the Illini can put on the floor. Both Domask and Harmon are high-usage scorers with a ton of experience, but neither have played in the NCAA Tournament. Shannon is a lock-down defender and has been a consistently efficient offensive threat. Up front, Guerrier looked like a burgeoning star at Syracuse, but struggled to really make his mark at Oregon the past two years. Hawkins on paper is a matchup nightmare as a 6'10" big that at his best is an excellent passer and floor spacer, but too often is invisible or ineffective. They do have solid depth off the bench with combo guard Sencire Harris, wings Luke Goode and Ty Rodgers, and big Dain Dainja all capable of providing reliable minutes. The problem is there's no true point guard on the roster. During their 7-1 stretch, they were top-50 in turnover rate. Their 9-5 start they were a woeful #308 and in the 4-7 finish they were #164. It isn't difficult to see that when they turn it over, they lose far more often. In addition, while Domask and Harmon add back court scoring, both are turnover prone and that will likely only be exacerbated by transferring to a higher level.

Offensively, Illinois runs a spread offense. They put Hawkins at the free throw line, a role that his passing is ideally suited for. The other four offensive players spread out around him, leaving the corners and baseline open to try to get looks from three or clear driving lanes. They utilize a number of cutting actions to create open shots. This article from Hooper University does a great job laying out how they create offense. Defensively, Underwood has a great understanding of the modern game. He transitioned from a high-pressure defense while at Illinois. It starts on the interior, where everyone challenges shots. 9 of 11 players last year had a block rate greater than 1.0, led by Dainja, Mayer, and Hawkins. Compare that to Marquette, where only 3 of 9 players had such a block rate (Ighodaro, Gold, and Joplin). Illinois is elite at 2PFG% defense, and they are also great at chasing teams off the three-point line thanks to high-activity defenders like Shannon. Teams shot much better against them from three, but at such a low rate (#16 nationally) that it didn't hurt their eFG% defense much. Expect them to fly around on the defensive end, and while they'll get whistled for some fouls, they have the depth to offset that.

This Illinois team is hard to peg down. The positives are they have a ton of length and experience. They should be a stout defensive team and have guys who have been through the wars. But many of those guys are the same ones that have been considered disappointing the past two years, and the leadership that Underwood questioned last year is the same leadership the team has now. While they've added a ton of experience, it comes from players who have either not played in the NCAA Tournament (Domask, Harmon) or played the last two years for underachieving teams (Guerrier at Oregon). They have the talent to be a top-half Big 10 team that makes it to the Tournament, but there are enough question marks around the ball-handling and leadership to question if they get there. On their best nights, they will be able to compete with top teams, but on their worst they will likely struggle even with lesser opposition. So how will this game go for Marquette? Going back to our trivia question, if you answered "St. John's on November 13, 2003" you are a winner. It's been 20 years since Marquette won a high-major road game in November, going 0-7 in that time. It was so long ago that Marquette got that win against a Big East school that they share a league with going on 19 years. Illinois will be looking for revenge after losing as a top-10 team at Fiserv two years ago and while Marquette will likely be favorites on paper, location alone might make this the toughest test of November for Marquette, which is really saying something considering the Maui field.

What We've Learned: Illinois is undefeated through two games, but like Marquette, both were against marginal competition. The Illini have been slow starters, as they were tied with Eastern Illinois late in the first before a 21-2 run gave them command and they were trailing Oakland with 10 minutes to play before a 22-3 run put the Grizzlies away. Defensively, they look like a tough matchup for Marquette. Illinois is top-20 in both limiting the number of attempts from three and assist rate. They have also been very good defending the interior and limiting rebounds. It's hard to tell how much of that is simply level of competition, but if they can cut down passing lanes, limit attempts from three, and defend the interior, that takes away much of what Marquette wants to do. That said, Marquette will be by far the best offense they have faced. On the other end, Illinois's lack of a point guard shows as Domask has registered a career high turnover rate through the young season while Harmon hasn't really cracked the rotation. Marquette's pressure could give the Illini fits. In addition, if the Golden Eagles can turn it into a shooting competition and get looks from three, they have been far better beyond the arc (40.0%) than Illinois has been (29.2%) to date. The Kolek injury is a question mark; the latest Cracked Sidewalks has heard is that he's expected to try playing tonight. Even if he doesn't, Sean Jones' speed and distribution could cause Illinois problems. Marquette will likely be the aggressor on both ends, the only question is whether that will lead them to overplaying their hand in a hostile environment and if Illinois can find the big runs they need to protect their court.

Marquette Connection: You don't have to go back too far to remember this one. Illinois was ranked #10 coming into Fiserv for the first marquee game with fans after the COVID pandemic shut college basketball down in 2020. Marquette played close to the favored Illini into the second half, but an 11-1 run pushed Illinois into the lead and a Coleman Hawkins three seemed to be the dagger as Illinois led 58-46 with just 10 minutes to play. Illinois then turned the ball over on three of their next four possessions as a 9-0 run got Marquette back into the game. The teams largely traded scores into the final minutes. With the score 66-65 Illinois, Marquette missed three straight chances to take the lead as Morsell missed two shots and Stevie Mitchell missed two free throws. With just seconds remaining, Illinois was trying to run out the clock as Darryl Morsell bodied up Illini guard Trent Frazier. When Morsell tried to force a steal, Frazier turned his dribble away but did not realize Tyler Kolek had snuck in from behind and was waiting to poke the ball free. Kolek made the clean steal and drove the length of the floor, scoring the winning points with 18 seconds left. Kur Kuath made one more steal on the final Illinois possession and Marquette escaped with a 67-66 upset win. Here's Kolek's game-clinching play:

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