Fall Hoops Mailbag

Sep 19, 2022

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It's been 184 days since my last hoops article - which was the Houston scout before the NCAA tournament loss to said Cougars. Thought a little mailbag action would help get the basketball juices flowing again - so here we go. Questions from the Slack channel...

Who's your starting five and who is the leading scorer?

Skyy Clark, RJ Melendez, Terrence Shannon, Jr., Matt Mayer, Coleman Hawkins.

I doubt you needed me to tell you this is our starting lineup. If any one besides these five are starting on November 7 against EIU, it would be a huge upset (discounting, of course, extenuating factors such as injuries, discipline, or whatever).

Leading scorer - Terrence Shannon, Jr.

I reallllly wanted to put RJ here, but I have to go with the proven high D1 scorer.

We are tied at Indiana late in the year and tied for the Big 10 lead with under 4 to play, who is our finishing lineup?

If it's not the above noted starting five - then it's because Ty Rodgers has forced Underwood to dare to not play him down the stretch.

How different does our system look this year on both ends of the floor? Will it look more like Underwood at the beginning of his tenure (turnovers/fouls/transition/etc.), or more like the last few years with Ayo/Kofi, just with more versatility and athleticism across all positions?

The 10 trillion dollar question. It's all I've been thinking about over the past month. My money is on wholesale changes on both offense and defense. I think Underwood was totally smitten by the Houston lineup which ran us off the floor in the tournament last year and set out to create a similar type roster. As such, on offense I see us shifting from the ball screen heavy sets of recent vintage in favor of a "Five Out" approach.

The tremendous wing depth - Mayer, TSJr, RJ, Ty Rodgers, Luke Goode - and the versatility of said wings lends itself to a "positionless" (now where have I heard THAT before?) lineup in which the offensive sets start with five guys outside the arc.

Also it's a pretty simple tweak to shift from five-out to a spread look, and I think we'll see Underwood sprinkle in some spread on occasion (especially when Dain Dainja is on the floor - more on that later).

The pace is likely to pick up as well. Remember "score in the first 7 seconds?" I'm sure Underwood like to rev the tempo jets again after last season in which his Kofi-centric offense was the second "slowest" of his Illinois tenure.

On defense, the length and athleticism stands out and I think we'll see Underwood attempt to take full advantage. I doubt we'll see a return to the full "on the line up the line" style from his first couple of seasons, but I do think we will pressure the ball much more and disrupt at the perimeter rather than sitting back in drop coverage like we needed to do last season in an effort to protect Kofi against ball screens.

If Skyy Clark is the main ball-handler, who else are we using to back him up?

Would you think me crazy if I said Ty Rodgers?

What is the biggest question for Illinois basketball to answer this year in order to compete for a B1G title again?

Will the freshman ball handlers (Clark, Rodgers, Epps) gain enough seasoning by year's end to be a championship caliber backcourt. I also have perimeter shooting as a rather big question mark. Five out positionless basketball sounds like a lot of fun, but if no one has to guard you beyond the arc then it's going to be, well, less fun. I'd be thrilled with a team three point percentage in the 34-36% range.

Is Dain Dainja this year's Austin Hutcherson (hyped and talented but never really productive)? What role and how many minutes do you expect he'll play?

At first glance, Dainja might appear to be the square peg of this roster - especially on the defense side of the ball. While he's certainly skilled enough to provide a unique look on offense, I'm guessing his tick will depend on his ability to defend. The Big Ten still has some monster bigs (TJD, H-Dick, Zach Edey) and you figure Dainja will probably be a factor against such traditional low block "5's", but if Underwood wants to up the pressure on defense, his minutes might be less than what some might think. I think he's primarily frontcourt depth - behind Hawkins.

The one caveat is if Underwood wants to run some spread offense, I think Dainja could be a great pinch post guy - kind of in a Trevion Williams mold. That said, if Underwood wants his defense to be as aggressive as I think he wants it to be - I'm not sure Dainja would be in line for heavy minutes. So maybe 16-18?

How do we keep the freshmen (Epps and Sencire, esp) and Goode happy and out of the portal if they don't get significant minutes early in the season?

Yeah - good luck with that. (Said every single high major coach). The portal will continue to giveth and taketh away - it's just the way of the world now. Minutes for those three are going to be at a premium - especially I think for Harris as he's no physically ready yet. Minutes will be there for Luke Goode - as he's still probably the best pure shooter on the roster and there is always play for that. Epps is kind of a wild card to me. There are minutes available to back up Skyy Clark - but will those go to Epps or will Ty Rodgers suck those up in a Swiss Army Knife kind of way. Epps has the offensive talent to play, but is that really what this roster needs this year?

How important will it be to establish "the guy" early on or can a by committee approach work?

I'm hoping "Skyy's our guy". In fact I always want my lead guard to be "THE GUY". It worked with Ayo obviously, but it didn't work with Andre Curbelo - and that hurt us big time last season.

What will Coleman Hawkins's role be?

I think he's your starting "five" - as much as that means in a five out set. What he does in that role is up to him. He also might be our best defender and so I certainly hope he's matured into a 25 minute per game guy. That said, he will likely lead the team in UTC%(Underwood Tantrums Created).

What is a reasonable expectation for the amount of time it will take this team to build chemistry?

That's what November and December are for. The early schedule is trial by fire for sure, but for three years running now, Underwood's teams have made their money in January and February after scuffling a bit through the pre-conference slate. I'd bank on a similar timeline this season - with hopefully a little extra March sprinkled in as well.

What is our seed in the big dance, and who do we play in the sweet sixteen game?

So many variables to this equation, but I'll throw a 3 seed dart with a Sweet 16 matchup against Houston for symmetry's sake.


Illiniboat on September 19, 2022 @ 05:08 PM

If Ty Rodgers isn't starting games, he better be finishing them. He and Skyy feel like the ceiling raisers on this team. If those two are ahead of schedule, Illinois is going to have a monster year.

Duce20 on September 20, 2022 @ 10:56 AM

Over whom?

Illiniboat on September 20, 2022 @ 02:54 PM

For me, probably Mayer, but I recognize that he didn't transfer here to come off the bench. I just think Rodgers is going to be very clearly one of the best players on the team right away and he's going to play heavy mins.

Duce20 on September 21, 2022 @ 08:39 AM

Mayer will be one of the best perimeter threats we have and has the size to defend the post. I think Rodgers will play 20 min + a game but this roster is constructed to run run run. I doubt we see more than 1 guy average over 28 mpg.

ATOillini on September 19, 2022 @ 05:45 PM

I knew immediately where the “THAT” link was taking me. (By the way, I still believe Lowell Hamilton never got enough credit.)

This type of article is always fun. Limitless potential all over the roster seems to be the default. However, I hope people don’t go crazy if we look a bit underwhelming early. We just lost 2 rather important (gigantic emphasis added) players in successive seasons.

orangejulius on September 20, 2022 @ 01:14 AM

You mentioned shooting as a concern and it will be interesting to see if RJ can continue to shoot it well on a higher volume. If not I think we will be seeing a lot of Epps and Goode as they are probably the two best shooters on the roster.

HiggsBoson on September 20, 2022 @ 07:36 AM

Just in time. I was jonesing for some basketball content.

HailToTheOrange on September 20, 2022 @ 09:15 AM


IlliniJoe81 on September 20, 2022 @ 11:27 AM

I'd love a 3 seed. Can make a deep run much more easily on that side of the bracket.

ChiefSTL6 on September 20, 2022 @ 06:38 PM

I think the defense will look a lot like the 2021 Baylor. Switching 1 through 5 and constant ball pressure. Using the ability to switch and ball pressure to take away your actions.

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