What Big Ten experts have to say about Illinois heading into March Madness

Mar. 20—The News-Gazette's Zach Piatt caught up with BTN analysts Robbie Hummel, Andy Katz and Bruce Weber — who coached Illinois from 2004-2012 and is third on the program's all-time wins list — at the Big Ten tournament in Minneapolis and asked the trio about the Illini's chances heading into this week's NCAA tournament.

What are your initial thoughts on this year's Illinois team?

Hummel: "If they lost in the second round, I wouldn't be surprised. If they made the Final Four, I wouldn't be surprised. I really think it's that wide of a variety. ... I thought they took a real step forward in the Iowa game (on March 10). But the whole season, they've taken steps back."

Katz: "First of all, they play incredibly hard and constantly downhill. It's like a fast train coming at you every game. Sometimes, it's a little too much and a little out of control, but you kind of wonder which teams are going to be able to stop them. The talent is there for them to get to Phoenix. We'll see if it happens."

Weber: "I think they've evolved as a team at different times. It's interesting. They tried to mesh early with all these new guys. They started clicking, and then (Terrence) Shannon was out. They kind of reorganized, and it became Marcus (Domask's) team. They were playing well, and then Shannon came back, and they struggled a little bit. Mid-January, they got back in form. They're obviously one of the best offensive teams in the country, but their defense slipped. They're guarding much better the last three or four games. I think that's your involvement as a team."

You've seen a lot of good Big Ten basketball players. What can you say about Terrence Shannon Jr.?

Hummel: "I've never seen anyone in the Big Ten — maybe Jaden Ivey, but I don't think Ivey has the physicality or power Shannon does — who can just manhandle teams in transition. In the open floor, he's a freight train. I don't know what you do with it. He draws fouls. He gets to the rim. He's a special talent, there's no doubt about that."

Katz: "End to end, he's as hard a guard as any player in the country. I think he's better, though, when everybody else is contributing. The games where he's had to score too much have been a problem for them."

Weber: "I've watched him since I was at Kansas State when he was at Texas Tech as a freshman, and he's gotten so much better. It's what college basketball is all about. He was a skinny guy, athletic guy, and depended on all the athleticism. Now, he's rock solid. He's bigger, stronger, his explosion is better, he's improved his shooting. He's one of the best downhill guys in the country. There's no doubt about that. It's been fun to watch how he's improved."

A lot of Illini fans believe this March has the potential to be special. Why is that?

Hummel: "Well, they're talented. They've got a lot of talent on that team, and they're experienced. Give Brad (Underwood) a lot of credit for being able to mesh this team together. It's not easy in the portal era. You've got a lot of new faces of guys who have played a lot of college hoops, and they fit together pretty well. The chemistry seems to be good. There were times last year where I didn't think they looked like they were having all that much fun playing together. I haven't felt that way about this team. I think they've done much better in that regard. I keep harping on this, but if they can figure it out defensively, they could have a really special run in the tournament."

Katz: "They definitely seem connected. There have been other Illinois teams where that wasn't always the case."

Weber: "One, you have veterans, and that always helps. And you have some versatility and length. They're kind of what modern NBA basketball is like, all guys about the same size who can spread you out. I think the big key is when they make threes, especially (Coleman) Hawkins, it's really hard to defend them. They have enough guys who can go one on one and penetrate. If you decide to help or you're good enough to keep them out of the lane, do they make threes? That's when they're really special."

Can Illinois make the Final Four?

Hummel: "I hope I'm never in their position. The inconsistencies are maddening. The talent is unquestionable, though. Can they? Yeah, they can. Will they? I don't know. That will be fascinating to see play out over the next two weeks."

Katz: "Yes. Of course they can. They have the talent. It's all about matchups and location, but they're as talented as any team that could get there."

Weber: "Some teams, you can say 'No way.' In my 40-some years between Purdue, Illinois, K-State and SIU, I thought there were like five times we could do it because we had good enough teams. I think they have a good enough team that has the ability that they could get there. Obviously, you've got to have everything go your way."