Although the 2023-24 Illinois basketball campaign is in its infancy, there are still observations to be vocalized.
In the first two contests, the Illini are averaging 72.0 points per game and shooting 48.7% from the field. Eastern Illinois and Oakland are not exactly noteworthy opponents, however, it’s easy to hiccup early in the season, as we saw with Michigan State against James Madison on the opening night of college hoops.
The season’s first of many tests tips off on Tuesday night in Champaign, as the Illini host the No. 4 ranked Marquette Golden Eagles on national television. Without a doubt, there are aspects of Illinois to feel encouraged while also aspects to demonstrate concern.
Illinois basketball report card through the first two games
- Most Valuable Player: Terrence Shannon Jr.
Terrence Shannon Jr. helped fuel a 16-5 Illini run to tame Oakland’s upset hopes. Through two games, the Chicago native is averaging a team-high 15.5 points per game in 31.5 minutes each night.
In the Illinois’ opener versus Eastern Illinois, Shannon poured in 16 points in a slow first half. A strong second act fueled the Illini’s 80-52 opening-night victory.
The first-team All-Big Ten nominee will be crucial for the Illini moving forward. Illinois has not appeared in the Sweet Sixteen since 2005.
- Surprise Over-Achiever: Amani Hansberry
The reigning 2023 Maryland Gatorade Player of the Year has hit the ground running for the Illini. Amani Hansberry is averaging 7.0 points per game and leads Illinois by averaging 8.0 rebounds per game in the 14 minutes he is getting each night.
The 6-foot-8 forward didn’t enter Friday’s game versus Oakland, though. Hansberry has the potential to drop a double-double at will, providing Illinois with a boost of offense and a significant defensive presence.
Although just a freshman, Hansberry is able to earn valuable minutes in key games early in his college career. Hansberry may have the opportunity to match up with Golden Eagles’ forward Oso Ighodaro, a good test for the young player.
- Needs Attention: 3-Point Shooting and Free Throws
As of today, the Illini are hitting 29.8% of three-pointers on the season, which is tied for No. 235 in the nation.
Despite winning by 27 points against Eastern Illinois, the Illini shot 10-of-32 from beyond the arc. In Friday’s victory, Illinois netted only 4-of-16 from three-point range. This production will not be sustainable throughout the season, as a plethora of high-powered offenses are on the Illini’s radar in the near future.
At the charity stripe, Illinois has struggled as well. As a team, Illinois is making just 51.3% of free throws. The Illini have been fortunate to make up for the lack of free throw efficiency with weaker opponents and homecourt advantage.
On the other hand, the season is a marathon, and road game victories in the Big Ten can be, at times, few and far between. Free throws are a point of focus, discipline, and repetition. Free throws can be the difference between narrow victories or defeats.