The 2023-’24 ‘BTPowerhouse Season Preview’ series will take an in-depth look at all 14 teams in the Big Ten heading into the 2023-’24 season with analysis on each program’s previous season, offseason departures, new additions, strengths, weakness, top player, and top storylines. Each post will also include predictions on each team’s starting lineup, season performance, and postseason potential.
Through six years, fans have to be pretty satisfied with Brad Underwood’s performance in Champaign. While it hasn’t been perfect, he took a genuine mess and turned it into one of the more consistent programs in the league. Illinois has transitioned from an afterthought to a contender and enters this fall coming off three straight NCAA Tournament appearances and four straight 20-win seasons.
Unfortunately, while the program’s base has improved, Illinois still hasn’t hit the promised land. The Illini have yet to make it past the first weekend with Underwood and regressed the last two years from the program’s elite seeding in 2021, falling to a four seed in 2022 and a nine seed last March.
It’s far from terrible, but the trend hasn’t felt good.
That all brings us to this year, where Illinois will yet again go through a roster transition. Star forward Matthew Mayer left for the NBA and the program lost a handful of other transfers as well, including Skyy Clark, Jayden Epps, and RJ Melendez. That leaves Illinois without two starters and several other contributors. The question is whether newcomers like freshman Armani Hansberry can make up for the losses.
So, can Illinois get things rolling? Let’s take a look.
1. 2022-’23 Season Performance
- Record: 20-13 (11-9)
- KenPom Team Rating: #35
- NET Rating: #36
- Postseason Appearance: NCAA Tournament (R64)
Last season was generally a successful one in Champaign. Despite significant roster turnover and a high-profile departure midseason (Clark), Illinois got its feet under it in January and used that push to secure a third-straight NCAA Tournament berth. And while that might not sound overly impressive, it was the first time Illinois hit that mark since 2007. Consistent trips to the postseason are also key in program building, as one can see from others like Michigan State and Purdue.
However, while the season was “successful” in a global sense, there wasn’t a ton of meat on the bone. It was a solid-to-good year without much that’s otherwise noteworthy. Illinois was out of the Big Ten title race well before March and was promptly snuffed out of the postseason by Arkansas in the opening round of the Tournament. The team also declined in the closing weeks of the season, going 4-7 over its last 11 games.
Not exactly the mark of a special unit.
Still, for a program that spent most of the 2010s in purgatory, we shouldn’t diminish what Illinois did accomplish last season. Illinois largely won the games it should have, crossed the all important 20-win mark, and did what it needed to get into the Big Dance and keep the program’s NCAA streak alive. Spend a few minutes with the Michigan and Rutgers fanbases and you’ll quickly learn the importance of hitting those marks.
Highlights of the season included the non-conference wins over Syracuse, Texas, and UCLA and the Big Ten wins over Michigan, Michigan State, and Ohio State, along with the season sweep of Wisconsin. Low points included the loss to Missouri in non-conference play, blown opportunities against Indiana and Purdue in conference play and the losses to Penn State and Arkansas in the postseason.
Individual statistical leaders were Coleman Hawkins, Matthew Mayer, and Terrence Shannon. Hawkins led the team in minutes, rebounds, and assists. Mayer led the team in blocks. Shannon led the team in points, steals, and total win shares.
2. Offseason Exits
Illinois suffered moderate attrition since last season tipped off. Some of it was expected, with various positional battles sorting out and the nature of today’s game. However, there were still a few surprising exits, beginning midseason with freshman star Skyy Clark. Other departures included Jayden Epps, Brandon Lieb, Matthew Mayer, RJ Melendez, Connor Serven, and Paxton Warden.
The most significant departure is certainly Mayer, who only played one season for Illinois last season after transferring in from Baylor. However, while his tenure might have been short, his contributions were not. He played substantial minutes and had one of the highest usage rates on the team, finishing the season ranked 15th in the Big Ten in percentage of shots taken while on the floor. He also was one of Illinois’ most efficient players on the floor, finishing with a 111.1 offensive rating in conference play and shooting 53.2 percent from two-point range over the course of the season. He was particularly important in wins over Michigan, Michigan State, Texas, and UCLA, scoring double-digits in each win.
But Mayer isn’t the only notable exit. Epps and Melendez both played more than half of Illinois’ minutes last season and Clark was on that pace (24.5 minutes per game) before his midseason transfer. While none of the three were superstar level contributors, each started at least 10 games last season. Clark and Epps were also some of the team’s better passes and Melendez ended up in the top six on the team in a variety of statistical categories. Lieb, Serven, and Warden also transferred from the program, but none even played 60 minutes over the course of last season, so it’s hard to think too much of their departures.
All told, Illinois is looking at replacing one of its best two players and three quasi starters from last season. It’s certainly significant, but nothing too unusual.
3. New Additions
The good news for fans is that Illinois will be adding a plethora of pieces to replace those players. Illinois will be adding two new recruits in Dra Gibbs-Lawhorn and Amani Hansberry. The program is also adding three transfers in Marcus Domask, Quincy Guerrier, and Justin Harmon. Domask comes out of Southern Illinois, Guerrier is from Oregon, and Harmon is from Utah Valley. Additionally, Illinois welcomes two walk-on transfers in Keaton Kutcher and Max Williams, who are from South Dakota and DePaul, respectively. Illinois also “adds” Nicole Moretti, who didn’t have a chance to do much for the team last season.
The most significant additions are Hansberry and Harmon, for different reasons. Hansberry certainly appears to be the best long-term prospect. He is a four-star prospect on 247Sports and barely outside the top 60 nationally. He looks to be a perfect replacement for Coleman Hawkins when he departs. Harmon is much less of a prospect, but arrives at a critical moment for Illinois’ backcourt, which is clearly in flux. He will almost certainly play this season and arrives with decent numbers on a relatively good Utah Valley squad. He’s a solid passer and was a high usage player last year. He needs to become more efficient, but that should be a natural development with better players around him.
The other additions figure to be depth options this season. Domask and Guerrier obviously project to have the earliest impact, but a lot is going to depend on how others around them play. Domask looks like a three and Guerrier is a four, so it’s going to be an uphill battle for either to get much time. Expect backup roles for each. Gibbs-Lawhorn has an easier path to playing time in the backcourt. It’s just going to depend on how ready he is to play. Expect him to be more of a factor for 2024-’25 and beyond.
From a general perspective, this is a quality group of incoming additions. There’s nobody here who stands out as a star level contributor, but at least one or two seem like starter-level contributors and two more should be decent reserve options. And that’s a pretty good group given what Illinois already has returning.
4. Points of Optimism
While Illinois isn’t getting a ton of preseason love, there’s plenty for fans to be excited about with this group. The roster is experienced, proven, and the additions should add some valuable depth. The coaching staff also continues to build a solid track record. All of that should make Illinois a solid pick for the NCAA Tournament and beyond.
Let’s begin with the roster. While Illinois may be losing a handful of players, the only departure that really stood out last season was Mayer. Everyone else was glued into a backup role or left midseason. Conversely, that means Illinois returns much of its core from a year ago, including three starters and its best bench options from late in the season. In 2023, that’s about as good as expected and gives Underwood a lot to work with.
Those three starters also showed some serious flashes last season. Terrence Shannon was one of the team’s best contributors, Coleman Hawkins became a really good presence on the boards and the defensive end of the floor, and Dain Dainja had a respectable run late in the season, including a 17-point showing against Iowa and 12 important points in a win over Minnesota. Ty Rodgers could also be set for a breakout campaign after putting up solid numbers as a freshman and the departure of RJ Melendez.
Illinois also adds plenty of new pieces, including an exciting prospect in Hansberry and two important transfers in Domask and Guerrier, who will solidify the depth chart. If even one of those can turn into a starting caliber player or a star, that’s a pretty capable starting lineup. A lot will depend on if Underwood can get some of the freshmen like Hansberry to hit the ground running. Overall, it bodes well for the program.
5. Points of Concern
Of course, while Illinois fans have plenty to be excited about, there are plenty of reasons for skepticism as well. Illinois loses arguably its best player, had some concerning trends last season, and doesn’t have obvious answers to productively replace those who left.
To start, we can’t understate the loss of Mayer. While he didn’t lead the team in many statistical categories, he only narrowly missed that designation in a variety of spots, including total points, rebounding, and steals. He was an offensive and defensive presence that produced in a ton of vital spots. The team often lived and died with his play. For example, in each of Illinois’ final four losses, he had an offensive rating below 100, including a dreadful 20 rating in the loss to Arkansas. Losing a player like that is never easy to overcome, especially with Melendez out the door alongside him. The wing group could take a major step back.
It’s also important to remember where Illinois was last season. While the team made the NCAA Tournament relatively comfortably, this wasn’t an elite squad. They finished 35th on KenPom and went 1-4 to close the season. In fact, if you only look at data from February and March, Illinois was thoroughly underwhelming, going 4-7 overall and ranking 81st on TRank during that span. Many of the team’s early wins, such as the victories over Texas and UCLA, carried Illinois’ resume, but those wins came with a starkly different roster that still had Clark.
None of the newcomers are sure things, either. The incoming recruits and transfers are nice prospects, but they’re a solid step behind many of the additions Underwood and his staff have welcomed in recent years. For example, Illinois just added Mayer and Shannon through the portal. Nobody in this new group looks anywhere close to that. That only exacerbates the impact of Illinois’ roster losses.
6. Top Player
With Mayer’s departure and the good, but not great group of additions, the clear contender in this category is Shannon. He was arguably Illinois’ best player last season and should only get more touches with more open possessions offensively. Don’t be surprised to see him get massive usage this season, perhaps even on the level fans watched with Ayo Dosunmu a few years ago.
Other potential contenders for this category are Coleman Hawkins and Ty Rodgers, who put up respectable numbers as a freshman. The newcomers are also worth mentioning here, particularly if they can outperform expectations. Domask and Guerrier should get opportunities and Gibbs-Lawhorn and Hansberry have the talent to contribute significantly down the line. The question will be whether these players are ready to contribute early.
However, even if fans are feeling optimistic about the other contenders group, Shannon is clearly the top dog on this team heading into this season. He was already a heavy piece of the team’s offense and could be set for even more with Mayer’s exit. Unless someone is vastly better than expectations, Shannon should claim this distinction pretty easily.
7. 2023-’24 Schedule Breakdown
- 10/20 - Ottawa (Exh.)
- 10/29 - Kansas (Exh.)
- 11/6 - Eastern Illinois
- 11/10 - Oakland
- 11/14 - Marquette
- 11/17 - Valparaiso
- 11/19 - Southern
- 11/24 - Western Illinois
- 12/2 - at Rutgers
- 12/5 - Florida Atlantic (New York City, NY)
- 12/9 - at Tennessee
- 12/17 - Colgate
- 12/22 - Missouri (St. Louis, MO)
- 12/29 - Fairleigh Dickinson
- 1/2 - Northwestern
- 1/5 - at Purdue
- 1/11 - Michigan State
- 1/14 - Maryland
- 1/18 - at Michigan
- 1/21 - Rutgers
- 1/24 - at Northwestern
- 1/27 - Indiana
- 1/20 - at Ohio State
- 2/4 - Nebraska
- 2/10 - at Michigan State
- 2/13 - Michigan
- 2/17 - at Maryland
- 2/21 - at Penn State
- 2/24 - Iowa
- 2/28 - Minnesota
- 3/2 - at Wisconsin
- 3/5 - Purdue
- 3/10 - at Iowa
This is a pretty tough slate, but something that looks far more manageable than last year’s schedule, at least on paper. For example, Illinois goes from playing three elite non-conference opponents (Texas, UCLA, and Virginia) to just one (Tennessee) this year. That’s at least a moderate break that should make things easier.
Non-conference play is going to be defined by four games. To start, the aforementioned road trip to Tennessee in early December. That’s going to be an extremely difficult game. The good news is it’s largely a “no lose” situation. Win it and it’ll be a huge boost for the season. Lose it and nobody will criticize Illinois much.
Other games to watch will be against Marquette in early November, Florida Atlantic in early December, and the game against Missouri just before Christmas. Illinois should be favored in all three games, but probably not by much. Those are three 50-50ish games where the team can drastically boost its resume by finding a way to win those games. The rest of non-conference play generally isn’t worth mentioning.
Conference play, of course, will be a bear. Unfortunately, Illinois basically got no breaks in its slate, with double-plays against Maryland, Michigan State, Northwestern, and Purdue. If you buy KenPom’s preseason numbers, Illinois is set to have double-plays against everyone in the top half of the league except Ohio State and Wisconsin and Illinois’ only games against those two will come on the road. Obviously, that’s a pretty formidable slate.
Perhaps the most interesting part of the schedule will come at the end, where Illinois closes with Wisconsin on the road, Purdue at home, and Iowa on the road. KenPom projects Illinois as an underdog against Wisconsin and Purdue and a narrow favorite (55%) against Iowa. Can the team avoid another underwhelming finish heading into the postseason? We’ll have to wait and see.
8. Projected Starting Lineup
- PG: Terrence Shannon (Rs. Sr.) - 95%
- SG: Ty Rodgers (So.) - 75%
- SF: Luke Goode (Jr.) - 80%
- PF: Quincy Guerrier (Rs. Sr.) - 55%
- C: Dain Dainja (Rs. Jr.) - 60%
(Percentage likelihood of starting at season tip-off.)
Illinois projects to have a relatively stable lineup heading into this season, even despite losing some key pieces. Most of the starters should be upperclassmen and several have multiple years in the program. It’s also a group that could improve significantly as the season continues, with younger players behind them.
Things start with a solid backcourt of Terrence Shannon and Ty Rodgers. Both were productive players last season and should be set to do more work this time around. And there are some talented players behind them with freshmen Niccolo Moretti and Dra Gibbs-Lawhorn and sophomore Sencire Harris. Luke Goode can also slide to the two, if needed as the two spots are relatively interchangeable.
On the wing, Illinois faces uncertainty. Goode will likely lock down one starting spot, but there’s little predicting how things will fall around him. Illinois has a lot of decent options, just nothing that looks like a sure thing. That’s because most of this group are new additions to the program. Domask and Guerrier are both transfer wings and Hansberry and Perrin should play here as well. The good news is Illinois will eventually just play the best of the group and rotate the rest behind him. If Illinois is going to be great, it’s going to need to find someone who can surprise at the three or the four.
The center position will almost certainly be dominated by Dain Dainja and Coleman Hawkins. Both are proven returners and played essentially all of the minutes here last year. These are safe bets. Unfortunately, it’s also unlikely either will take a significant step forward this season either. Expect more of the same, for better or worse.
Overall, Illinois’ projected lineup has some uncertainty, but plenty to like as well. The backcourt looks like it could be special, the frontcourt is stable, and the wing group has the chance to be better than expected. Fans will hope a few new faces emerge to flush things out.
9. Realistic Team Goals
Illinois wasn’t a great team last season, but it was a good group and has the potential to be significantly better this time around, if Underwood and his staff can find some new contributors. The key focus will be on the wing, where the program adds a slew of new pieces. If Illinois finds some answers there, this could be a special season.
However, it’s hard to expect too much from freshmen and transfers with mixed pasts. Reasonable goals have to focus on returning to the NCAA Tournament and competing for a top four seed in the Big Ten Tournament in March. Catch a few breaks from there and things could really come together.
10. Overall Season Outlook
Although last season wasn’t a banner year in Champaign, it was a successful one. And Underwood and staff return much of the core from that group, including multiple starters and a bonafide star in Shannon. The question is now whether Illinois can improve from that mark and finish near the top of the league.
On paper, that not only seems possible, but probable. Illinois has more than enough talent and experience to get the job done. It’s hard to see the group keeping pace with Purdue and Michigan State, but everything else seems on the table.