Illinois Basketball: Illini have passed the sniff test thus far

Illinois v Tennessee
Illinois v Tennessee / Eakin Howard/GettyImages

If you just look at the Illinois basketball record this season and compare it to last year, things look similar.

Both renditions started their respective campaign 7-2 overall. While the Illini this season won the first Big Ten game, unlike last year, both teams have taken down two ranked opponents in the first nine games of the season.

While, on paper, things might seem similar, I would like to remind Illinois fans of what we were dealing with in 2022-23.

In that first nine-game stretch, the Illini looked uncomfortable. There was a bunch of old talent, mainly transfers, and some decent new freshmen talent trying to mesh together. It was like fitting a square peg in a round hole.

Illinois didn’t have the go-to guy in that stretch and really for the entirety of the 2022-23 campaign. Terrence Shannon Jr. went off against UCLA, which won us the game. But Skyy Clark was clearly having some issues, and he would eventually transfer out before Big Ten season started.

There were some massive chemistry issues with that team. Jayden Epps and Matthew Mayer didn’t really seem to gel too much. Meanwhile, Shannon was falling asleep at times on the court. When he did get a spark, it was sensational, though.

I would argue, that despite Illinois making the NCAA tournament, last year’s team was one of the most uncomfortable and ugly groups of players I have ever watched. That isn’t the case this year, though.

Illinois basketball has an identity on the court for the 2023-24 season

In 2022-23, the Illini were thrown out there without an identity, which never ended up being developed. Illinois has developed that identity this season.

Shannon is clearly the go-to guy when it comes to the offensive end of the court. When we need a big play or to stop the opposing team’s momentum, Shannon gets the ball and makes a shot or gets to the bucket. He is our “Ayo” this season.

Illinois is a three-point shooting and slashing team. Are we good at shooting from three-point range? Not necessarily, but the Illini are taking 25.8 three-pointers per game. We know who we are as a program. When we aren’t shooting from distance, players like Shannon, Ty Rodgers, and Justin Harmon are slashing to the basket and finishing around the hoop.

I feel like everyone on the team knows their role. As mentioned before, Shannon is the go-to guy. Rodgers and Coleman Hawkins are the do-it-all guys. Dain Dainja, Quincy Guerrier, and Amani Hansberry are paint bruisers. Harmon, Marcus Domask, and Luke Goode are the don’t sleep on them or they will light up the scoreboard guys.

While every Illinois player has developed their role offensively, they aren’t slacking on the defensive end of the court either. The Illini are only giving up 65.0 points per game, which ranks No. 41 in the country.

Illinois has an identity this season, and it has shown on the basketball court. While the record might be the same as last season through nine games, this rendition of the Illinois basketball program feels different. To me, they have definitely passed the sniff test thus far.

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