The independent student newspaper at the University of Illinois since 1871

The Daily Illini

The independent student newspaper at the University of Illinois since 1871

The Daily Illini

The independent student newspaper at the University of Illinois since 1871

The Daily Illini

The independent student newspaper at the University of Illinois since 1871

The Daily Illini

‘It’s hard not to get emotional’: Illinois men’s basketball records historic 2023-24 championship season

Olivia McAfoos
Coach Underwood congratulates fifth year guard #0 Terrence Shannon Jr on senior night.

After enduring a trophyless 2022-23 season, to say that Illinois men’s basketball came into the 2023-24 season with unfinished business would be an understatement.

The aches and pains of last year saw the Illini eliminated in the first rounds of both the Big Ten championship and the NCAA tournament. The lack of experience on a relatively young team combined with the program’s recent struggles in March was not lost on head coach Brad Underwood. Heading into 2023-24, Underwood and the Illini got to work.

“We knew we had to get older,” Underwood said. “That was one of the things that … was very loud to us in terms of our team.”

Three crucial graduate student transfers arrived in Champaign in the form of guard Justin Harmon and forwards Quincy Guerrier and Marcus Domask. With fifth-year guard Terrence Shannon Jr. and senior forward Coleman Hawkins returning from the 2022-23 squad, Illinois now had the veteran experience it needed to make a significant postseason run.

“This is a group of guys that I know our fans will enjoy watching and getting to know,” Underwood said in October. “They’re really good people and human beings … This group is trying to accomplish something that hasn’t been accomplished in a long time.”

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In the face of elevated expectations and a mountain of pressure on their shoulders, the Illini kicked off the season firing on all cylinders. Two explosive exhibition wins over Ottawa and No. 1 Kansas to open the year resulted in a red-hot start to college basketball in Champaign. The buzz inside the State Farm Center only continued to rise following regular-season victories over Eastern Illinois and Oakland, lifting Illinois to a 2-0 start.

The Illini’s first real test of the year came on Nov. 14, as the No. 4 Marquette Golden Eagles came to town, downing the Illini 71-64 for their first defeat.

Despite souring Illinois’ positive start to the season, Underwood and the Illini wasted little time in shaking off the loss, sparking a remarkable five-game winning streak to close out the rest of November and welcome the month of December. This strong run of form was highlighted by both a Big Ten opening road win at Rutgers on Dec. 2, as well as the squad’s trip to New York City on Dec. 5 for the Jimmy V Classic.

Having won its Jimmy V Classic matchup in the season prior, the Illini returned to Madison Square Garden with the national eye upon them. This time, Illinois found itself up against a formidable foe, the No. 11 Florida Atlantic Owls. Led by career nights from Shannon and Domask, the Illini put together a performance for the ages to come out on top with a 98-89 result over the Owls.

Another top-25 matchup awaited the Illini soon after the victory, however, and four days later No. 17 Tennessee managed to put a stop to Illinois’ win streak.

Underwood and the squad were able to regroup and won their next four games, including a revenge win in Braggin’ Rights over Missouri on Dec. 22. Illinois went on to open the 2024 calendar year with a dominant 30-point triumph over in-state rivals Northwestern before losing its first Big Ten matchup of the season on the road to No. 1 Purdue.

The remainder of Big Ten play saw the Illini go 12-5 overall to close out the regular season. Shannon, Domask and Hawkins played pivotal roles in leading Illinois late in the year, and by the end of conference play, the Illini found themselves second in the standings with a 14-6 Big Ten record.

With March now upon the Illini, it was time to see how far the squad would be able to go in the postseason — the time had come to witness what sort of legacy the 2023-24 Illini would be able to leave behind.

The path to the 2024 Big Ten tournament championship title was paved through three straight knockout wins. The trophy returned to Champaign after a hard-fought, tournament-opening win over Ohio State, a second-half comeback in the semifinals over Nebraska, and finally, a heated battle to down Wisconsin in the championship game. Led by the 2024 Big Ten tournament’s Most Outstanding Player in Shannon, the Illini headed into the prestigious NCAA tournament with wind in their sails and a No. 3 tournament seed to their name.

The nerves stemming from memories of early exits in recent years were calmed after the Illini came into March Madness strong. Two dominant victories over Morehead State and Duquesne sent Illinois to its first Sweet 16 game since 2005, where No. 2 Iowa State awaited the Illini. Despite having already made history after ending the 19-year drought, the Illini weren’t finished and eliminated the Cyclones with a 72-69 upset.

Illinois’ fairytale run in March came to an end in the Elite Eight, as the squad was bounced from the competition on March 30 by the eventual tournament winners in No. 1 UConn. After missing out on what would have been a dream Final Four appearance for the program, a remarkable 29-win season came to a close for the Illini.

“What a great season,” Underwood said following Illinois’ exit. “Hold your head high, they had a lot of fun, we didn’t have bad days, they were a joy to be around, and like I said, I’m the most blessed person on the planet that I got to coach that group.”

The Illini had the pieces to do something special in 2023-24, and they did just that. The achievement of both a Big Ten tournament title and an Elite Eight appearance crafted the most exciting postseason that Illinois has had in a long time, and the team finished the year with a 29-9 overall record.

After suffering through years of postseason disappointments, Illinois finally found a way to get over that hump in March and do what recent Illini teams couldn’t, putting together the third most wins in school history along the way. The 2023-24 Illini were a special team that topped off a special year of basketball in Champaign, one that won’t soon be forgotten.

“I hope truly, when they’re brought back to Illinois in 10 years, 20 years, whatever, they remember how much fun they had,” Underwood said. “They’ll have long-lasting relationships; they’ll remember a crazy old man that they brought along and did Super Soaker squirt guns with, hoisting trophies and cutting down nets. It’s hard not to get emotional when you’ve got a group like that.”



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About the Contributor
James Kim
James Kim, Sports Editor
My name is James Kim and I’m a senior studying English with a minor in business. This is my third year with The Daily Illini and it’s been an amazing ride so far. When I joined in fall 2021, I began as a staff writer for the sports section where I covered women’s tennis. In spring 2022, I became an assistant sports editor and started covering soccer and Illinois men’s basketball. From spring 2023 onwards I’ve been working as the sports editor! In addition to being an Illini and Real Madrid fanatic, I also love watching movies and TV shows. If you have any questions about writing for The DI, you can reach me at my email below. I-L-L!
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