DI Sports podcast: Shannon the key to success in March


James Hoeck

Guard Jayden Epps makes a pass to his team in a attempt to score against Northwestern during the first half of last night’s game. During the game against Northwestern Epps did not play an effective role to the defeat of the team on Thursday.

By Carson Gourdie, Sports Video Editor

Nothing could go right in the first half. Matthew Mayer played erratic. Jayden Epps was ineffective. Northwestern’s Boo Buie bullied Illinois’ defense, capitalizing on multiple wide-open three-point shot attempts. It seemed likely: the ‘Cats would sweep the Illini for the first time since 1959.

Say goodbye to the Big Ten double-bye. Say goodbye to a favorable NCAA tournament seed. Say goodbye to the fans who packed the State Farm Center, who already witnessed disappointing home losses to Indiana and Penn State.

But as Illinois head coach Brad Underwood said after the game, “it was a tale of two halves.”

Storming back from an 18-point deficit, the Illini stunned the ‘Cats and put themselves into a position to create momentum heading into March. But what was the main reason the Illini completed the comeback? Was it because of better perimeter defense in the second half? Was it because they limited the turnovers?

After the game, Underwood credited Harris, saying that he was the most valuable player. However, while Harris’ prowling on-ball defense and energy was a major factor, let’s not overlook why the Illini won.

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Terrence Shannon Jr., who finished with 26 points because of his lethally balanced offensive attack, being aggressive was the reason why Illinois won. And this was despite recording an unmemorable first-half performance.

Coming off of a concussion and off the bench, Shannon scored a mere two points. Combined with an erratic performance from Matthew Mayer and an off-day from Jayden Epps, prospects of a victory looked bleak.

But hasn’t Illinois been through this before? Just having to wake for Shannon to wake up and guide the Illini to victory?

He’s the reason why the Illini came back and defeated No. 8 UCLA in Las Vegas. He’s the one who dominated overtime and secured a victory over No. 2 Texas. And his style of play will determine whether the Illini can finally reach the Sweet 16 — or even a Final Four.

Shannon’s ability to attack the rim makes him one of the most unguardable players in the conference.

“We had a real hard time with Shannon in the second half,” Northwestern head coach Chris Collins said. “He’s such an explosive athlete. We could not stop him from getting to that left hand… Then he made a couple of those really deep step back threes.”

Shannon’s ability to make the deep shot last night makes him unstoppable. However, while his three-pointers early in the 2nd half sparked an Illini rally, his ability to drive to rim essentially clinched a victory.

In the previous two games – which Shannon was ruled out for – the offense operated fine. But it’s clear that a healthy Shannon likely would’ve secured a victory over Indiana. Despite missing a plethora of layups, the Illini only fell by three on the road. Would’ve Shannon missed five layups against the Hoosiers?

Granted, Mayer played fantastic against the Hoosiers. But what is more sustainable? Mayer making three-pointers or Shannon attacking the rim? For a team that lacks a true point guard and is loaded with talented but inefficient perimeter shooters, Shannon is the cure. He often turns on a switch and bullies defenders.

It’s why he was able to attempt 19 free throw attempts against Kansas in the “secret” scrimmage. He’s the reason why the Illini have two top ten victories, which without, the Illini may be looking outside of the bracket.

“Terrence was electric, getting downhill, getting to the foul line,” Underwood said about Shannon’s performance against Northwestern. “But the player of the game, in my opinion, is Sencire (Harris). He just completely changed, changed the night and elevated or elevated his teammates.”

Harris is a fun player. He stepped up big after Epps was on the bench for most of the 2nd half. However, you win games in basketball when you score more points. If the Illini seriously want to break its Sweet 16 drought, it’s determined by Shannon’s offensive output.

While Epps is a rising star, he’s struggled as a facilitator and his outside shot is shaky. Mayer is inconsistent, although aggressive. Coleman Hawkins is not assertive on offense and likely will never be. Shannon needs to take over as the primary ball handler.

The formula for an Illini victory is simple – we’ve seen it play out multiple times. Attack the rim, have Shannon provide a solid 20 point game and game plan around a team’s top player. Against the Hoosiers in Bloomington, Underwood double-teamed Trayce Jackson-Davis and successfully slowed him down. The Illini would’ve won that game if they made more layups.

However, when defensive breakdowns allow Penn State and Northwestern to shoot open three pointers, they lose. When Shannon sits back at the perimeter, they lose.

If the Illini want to snap its 18-year Sweet 16 drought, Shannon will have to lead the way. It’s simply more reliable than a freshman shooting guard or a streaky three-point shooter from Baylor.


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