20. Illinois (6-2)
The pieces are in place for these Illini to compete for the Big Ten championship, something they won last season after taking the tournament title the year before. However, many of the names are vastly different this season. Brad Underwood has done a masterful job rebuilding this program without even rebuilding, adding transfers and freshmen and helping develop some of those players from last season into bigger roles.
The plan was working well to start the week, scoring a 73-44 win over Syracuse as part of the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. Illinois took care of things and made easy work out of the Orange, getting 17 points from Terrence Shannon Jr. and 15-point outings from Coleman Hawkins and RJ Melendez, two mainstays from last season. Unfortunately, their quest for Big Ten glory got off to a bad start, losing 71-66 at #22 Maryland on Friday despite another fine performance (19 points) from Shannon.
Things are different at Illinois but things are still tough in the Big Ten. It’s hard to be too upset over losses to Virginia and at Maryland, and the Illini have a solid win against UCLA. The question remains if this team can take that next step offensively, after having one of their worst shooting nights of the year against those Terrapins. What makes matters even more concerning is that the Illini have a really tough matchup in New York against Texas next week, though a win there would make this team look extremely good one month into the season.