Column: Illinois is playing for its NCAA Tournament reputation — and it all rests on Terrence Shannon Jr.’s shoulders

David Berding/Chicago Tribune/TNS

OMAHA, Neb. — Where would the Illinois men’s basketball team be without Terrence Shannon Jr.?

Big Ten Tournament champions and a No. 3 seed in the East Region of the NCAA Tournament? Doubtful.

At-large bid and a No. 8 seed? Possible.

NIT-bound, like Iowa and two other Big Ten teams? Perhaps.

Fortunately for coach Brad Underwood and Illini Nation, they’ll never have to find out. Shannon will be front and center as the Illini (26-8) begin their quest for a national championship at 2:10 p.m. Thursday (truTV) against No. 14 Morehead State at CHI Health Center in Omaha, seeking to bury the searing memories of so many disappointing March Madness episodes.

Shannon missed six games in late December and early January after being suspended by the university following a warrant for his arrest in Kansas on a rape charge. It became a chance for the other Illini players to grow together. They responded by doing just that.

“Missing Terrence was tough for our team,” swingman Marcus Domask said. “He’s such a big part of what we do, but I think it kind of gave all of us a chance to do a little more, and we all got more confidence because we had to adapt our roles.”

The Illini went 4-2 in Shannon’s absence, losing at Purdue on Jan. 5 despite a fevered comeback and falling at home on Jan. 14 against Maryland.

Whether they would have continued to get better and become the team many believe is headed for an Elite Eight showdown in the East Region against top-seeded UConn is anyone’s guess. It took a court order in January to lift the university’s suspension of their star player, and Underwood immediately inserted Shannon back in the lineup.

Since losing at Northwestern in overtime in Shannon’s return on Jan. 24, the Illini have gone 12-3, including the three comeback wins last week in Minneapolis, where he averaged a conference tournament record 34.0 points per game en route to earning Most Outstanding Player honors.

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“I think it helped us in a certain sense,” Underwood said of the six-game stretch without Shannon. “But we were finding our identity right about then, especially on the offensive side. Yet, we continued to flourish. I think we went into a shock a little bit in our first road game at Purdue without him. There was a sense of swagger that he gave us. We were down 20-4, I think.

“From that point on I think we got better. Since he’s been back, it was just reinstating and him kind of fitting in. He knew that we were playing well, so it made us better along the way.”

Shannon, a fifth-year player who transferred to Illinois after three seasons at Texas Tech, was unavailable to speak to the media Wednesday, just as he’s been under the cone of silence since his return. Illinois included a note in its media advisory that Shannon would “remain unavailable to the media, pursuant to the advice of his legal counsel.”

But the Lincoln Park High alum seemed to be in good spirits Wednesday. He was all smiles during the off-day shootaround and has been able to shut out the noise from opposing fans, including chants of “No means no” at some games.

“I think he’s doing well,” Domask said. “He’s focused on basketball. He’s focused on trying to get a win. I think that’s just what we’re all here (for).”

This is familiar territory for Illinois, which was a No. 1 seed behind Ayo Dosunmu and Kofi Cockburn in 2021 when it was upset by Loyola in the second round in Indianapolis. Is this team better equipped for the rigors of March Madness?

“Now, that team was great,” Underwood said. “You have two All-Americans there. Just chose to have a bad day and had a bad day. But again, we’ll see. We’ll see. I like where this group is going, though.”

On paper, the Illini should cruise against Morehead State in the first-round game. The key will be containing Riley Minix, a 6–foot-7 grad transfer who excelled at NAIA Southeastern University and averaged 20.8 points and 9.8 rebounds this season while leading the Kentucky school to a 26-8 record. Morehead State hopes to slow down the tempo and keep Illinois from running them to death with its potent offense led by Shannon and Domask, with Luke Goode and Dain Dainja sparking them off the bench.

Other than a brief statement from Underwood calling Morehead State a “great challenge” and saying they were “extremely well coached,” there was no talk about their first-round opponent from the Illini coach or his players. Morehead State players, meanwhile, talked about their faith as a reason to believe.

“I hope that when we play tomorrow we can show everyone in the world that we’re playing for Him and something bigger than just basketball,” guard Drew Thelwell said.

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Illinois is playing for something bigger than basketball, too. The team is playing for its reputation. Illinois’ recent history of bowing out in the first or second rounds has been a topic of discussion on social media every March since 2021. Underwood said his players “don’t know history,” and that past tournament failures were a topic “only because you (media) guys talk about it.”

“This is a new group, a veteran group,” he said, repeating the team’s marketing mantra of being “Everyday guys.”

But unless they get to the Sweet 16 next week in Boston, the Illini are in danger of being labeled overhyped once again. Coleman Hawkins, who has been a human pin cushion from critical Illini fans during an up-and-down career, said those weren’t the real Illinois fans.

“If any fan has anything negative to say about us, I mean, can they really call themselves a fan?” he said. “I feel like they’re more of a spectator of Illinois basketball. I feel like the real fans support us in spite of whatever opinions they have… We have a really strong fan base that really does care about us who really support us.”

The Illini can silence the doubters this March, or feed into the narrative again if they don’t at least advance to the Sweet 16.

Time to find out.