‘A lot of ups and downs’: Illinois men’s basketball experiences 2022-23 season of early highs, late struggles

orward+Coleman+Hawkins+goes+for+a+dunk+during+the+first+half+of+the+Michigan+game+on+Mar.+2.+The+Illini+faced+many+challenges+during+this+season%2C+and+despite+solid+performances%2C+they+met+an+early+exit+in+the+NCAA+tournament.

James Hoeck

orward Coleman Hawkins goes for a dunk during the first half of the Michigan game on Mar. 2. The Illini faced many challenges during this season, and despite solid performances, they met an early exit in the NCAA tournament.

By James Kim, Sports Editor

After losing all five starters from the 2022 Big Ten title-winning team a mere season ago, Illinois men’s basketball appeared set to enter a serious rebuilding season heading into 2022-23. However, after a big offseason that saw elite transfers and top-rated freshman recruits join the program, the Illini were suddenly placed back into the title-contender conversation.

“It’s always a fun time of year to coach,” said head coach Brad Underwood in October. “This group has been unbelievable in terms of their work ethic, the new guys’ ability to grasp what we’re doing and then to back that up with really good questions and a lot of film work.”

The new-look Illini wasted no time in introducing themselves to Champaign, as the team enjoyed three-straight blowout home victories to kick off the 2022-23 season. Things were clicking in November, and the hot streak carried into Illinois’ first away game against No. 8 UCLA in the Continental Tire Main Event in Las Vegas.

In the Illini’s first real test of the season, the team didn’t falter and defeated the Bruins in a 79-70 triumph. Senior guard Terrence Shannon Jr. led the way with 29 points as Illinois played out some of its finest basketball all season.

Despite falling to No. 16 Virginia in the final shortly after, the team had made some serious noise and wasn’t finished yet. Illinois recovered in time to dominate Lindenwood before securing a 29-point victory over Syracuse in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge to wrap up the month.

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    December saw the roller coaster effect seen throughout the season start to come into play. The first ominous sign came after the Illini opened conference play with an away loss to the No. 22 Maryland Terrapins. There wasn’t any reason to press the panic button in Champaign, however, as the Illini bounced back and shocked the country with their subsequent trip to Madison Square Garden.

    The national spotlight shined on the Jimmy V Classic and the Illini thrived under the pressure. All the hype surrounding the potential of Underwood’s squad reached its peak as Illinois fought through an overtime period to claim an astounding 85-78 win over No. 2 Texas. Fifth-year forward Matthew Mayer and Shannon paved the path to victory, with the former finding his form after a slow start to the season. The victory was an active representation of the tough, gritty culture that Underwood had been ingraining into the Illini program for years.

    However, the highest highs of the 2022-23 season also came with some of the lowest lows. A mere four days after beating the Longhorns, the Illini fell to 0-2 in the Big Ten after dropping their trap game to the Penn State Nittany Lions. It was a poor defeat in front of the home crowd at State Farm Center as Illinois was outworked and looked lost on the court. Underwood spared no expense when it came to publicly calling out his veteran players and the lack of leadership seen on the floor during the loss.

    “I’m just telling you, our approach to this game right now is immature,” Underwood said. “And it lacks complete, 100% leadership. If I gotta go back to leading again, this team’s in trouble. Somebody on this team’s gotta step up.”

    The Illini became increasingly inconsistent for a short stretch following the defeat. Despite obtaining blow-out victories against its final non-conference opponents of the season, Illinois suffered ugly losses to rivals Missouri at Braggin’ Rights and Northwestern in the Big Ten. Additionally, freshman point guard Skyy Clark chose to step away from the team shortly after the defeat. Now 0-3 in conference play and without their starting point guard, the Illini needed a big morale boost to turn the season around.

    The boost came with No. 14 Wisconsin’s visit to Champaign. Illinois battled out an upset over its neighbors to the north, striking a newfound fire within the team.

    “To say (the win) was needed and felt good was probably the understatement of the day,” Underwood said, following the win over the Badgers. “You fight for your culture and your identity as to what you stand for. This team has been elite defensively and that’s a really good offensive team.”

    The Illini began to heat up after earning their first Big Ten victory, winning seven of their next nine games. Statement victories over No. 24 Rutgers, Michigan State and Ohio State highlighted the midseason run, though the momentum only lasted so long.

    The final stretch of the regular season was a mixed one for Illinois. The ups of coming back against No. 21 Northwestern and defeating Michigan in a double overtime thriller were met with the downs of painful, narrow losses to Ohio State and No. 5 Purdue.

    Still, there was excitement amongst fans as the Illini prepared to kickoff the postseason with the Big Ten Tournament in Chicago. Illinois had a chance at revenge against Penn State after losing the previous two encounters, however, disaster struck as the team suffered an early exit in the second round of the competition. A week later, the team’s season ended as Arkansas bounced Illinois out of the NCAA tournament in the first round.

    “Let’s not forget, there’s a lot of new faces in that locker room,” Underwood said following the NCAA tournament loss. “Team chemistry just isn’t built in a day. It takes a little bit of time and I’m happy with the places we’ve gotten to and the things we’ve accomplished, but there were some challenges and some shortcomings.”

    While it feels unfair to call the season a total bust for Illinois, it also wasn’t grand enough to be considered an undisputed success. On the one hand, the Illini achieved another 20-win season with a new-look roster. On the other hand, it was a trophyless year for the team as they were unable to defend their conference title and exited both postseason tournaments prematurely.

    Illinois had the pieces to do something special but weren’t able to reach its full potential. However, despite the sour taste the season’s conclusion left in fans’ mouths, the 2022-23 Illini had their moments, delivering on the exciting moments and memorable wins that Illinois basketball has come to embody as a program.

    “(This season has) meant a lot,” Shannon said. “A lot of ups and downs, some guys left. But the people here now, they stayed. We stuck together and every time someone left or we lost, we never separated. It brought us even closer together.”

     

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