COLLEGE BASKETBALL: Illinois honors seniors in finale against Purdue

Mar. 5—CHAMPAIGN — Illinois will be honoring seven players in pregame ceremonies tonight before the 12th-rated Fighting Illini take on the third-rated Purdue Boilermakers.

But, all seven have had different journeys along the way before becoming a member of the 2023-24 Fighting Illini.

"What we see in the common new era of senior days," Illinois coach Brad Underwood said. "We have everything from a first-year guy, who scored his first points this year, to a 2,000-point scorer. It is a unique day. It's the modern day basketball world that we are living in, where we see a wide spectrum of guys."

Max Williams, who joined the program as a preferred walk-on, scored his first points of his collegiate career on Feb. 13 with a pair of free throws in a win over Michigan.

Then there is the trio of graduate transfers in Marcus Domask, Quincy Guerrier and Justin Harmon. Domask, who played four years at Southern Illinois, eclipsed 2,000 career points earlier this season at Illinois.

And then there is Terrence Shannon Jr., a transfer from Texas Tech after 2022-23 season, who currently leads Illinois is scoring at 22.0 points per contest.

Next you have Coleman Hawkins, a traditional four-year guy for the Illini, who is just 99 points shy of 1,000 for his career.

Finally, Illinois will recognize junior Luke Goode, who is graduating from the Gies College of Business this semester.

"It's a very accomplished group," Underwood said. "This has been an extremely, extremely fund group to coach. By far and away, the most pleasurable year with character, fun guys that work, guys that bought into our culture with all of the ups and downs of the season and everything that this group has gone through.

"This one will always hold a special place for me. Hopefully, there a lot of chapters left to write."

So far, the majority of their chapters have been very good, if not great, especially considering the three graduate transfers and the returns of Shannon and Hawkins after considering turning professional after last season.

Those five have accounted for 73.8 percent of this team's scoring (1,815 of 2,458) and 53.1 percent of their rebounding (679 of 1,203) and only Shannon and Hawkins had played together before this season.

"We had the blueprint of what we were looking for, but then it's more about, and I think this is the hard part, is the character piece more than anything," Underwood said. "It's who fits. No one wants to bring a knucklehead in or a guy that is a problem or doesn't fit or causes chaos in your locker room.

"These guys have been incredible. They checked all the boxes. They all wanted to be at Illinois for the right reason — that is winning and success. We feel like we hit a home run in the portal — a grand slam."

This group can still add some memorable moments to their season, including tonight when Illinois hosts Purdue, who secured at least a share of the Big Ten regular-season title with 80-74 victory over Michigan State on Saturday.

The Illini (22-7 overall, 13-5 in the Big Ten) can also win a share of the regular-season title with a win over the Boilermakers (26-3 overall, 15-3 in the Big Ten) tonight, followed by a win over Iowa on Sunday and a Purdue loss on Sunday at home against Wisconsin.

So, there is still a chance, but the most important part for the Illini would be a win tonight against a Boilermaker team that beat them 83-78 on Jan. 5 in West Lafayette, Ind.

"We were never in it. We made a run but they whooped us," said Underwood, noting that the Illini trailed by double digits for the majority of the contest. "They physically manhandled us. They were more ready to play. They were more ready to be in that game.

"We scored a boatload of points in the second half, but you can't dig yourself out of a hole when you are down 20-4. They punched us and it took us a while to get off the mat, to be very honest. We have to match the physicality of the game, because we did not in the first game."

One definite change this time around will be Shannon, who was suspended for the first contest.

Shannon, who is averaging 25.0 points per contest in his last seven games, will definitely give Illinois another offensive option to go along with Domask and Hawkins, who have each had 30-point games in the past 10 days.

"Obviously, we have TJ (Shannon)," said Domask. "That's a completely different dynamic to our team. He brings a lot to us. Outside of just TJ, a lot of us have gotten a lot better. I think we are a completely different team than we were the first time around."

One thing that hasn't changed about Purdue is 7-foot-4 center Zach Edey, the reigning Big Ten Player of the Year, who is averaging 24.0 points and 11.8 rebounds per contest.

"You don't practice for it, you can't practice that," Underwood said. "We dealt with it with Kofi, we know what that's like. It's the other guys that whipped us."

Sophomore Trey Kaufmann-Renn was actually Purdue's leading scorer back on Jan. 5 with a career-best 23 points, while Lance Jones had 17 and Braden Smith contributed 14. Edey was limited to just 10 points and 15 rebounds.

"Zach is going to get his. You are not going to prevent him. He is that different," Underwood said. "You hope to make it hard. You hope to make him have to do something things on the other end. Kauffman-Renn, (Mason) Gillis and (Ethan) Morton and all those other guys, they just annihilated us."

Underwood notes that Purdue and Illinois are the No. 2 and 3 offenses in NCAA basketball.

"They are probably an odds-on favorite to win the National Championship," Underwood said. "That doesn't mean that we are not going out there to fight and compete. We want to find out and measure where we are at and to see if we are better than we were two months ago.

"They have proven to be human, at times, and been knocked off. I expect we will get their best game and we will try to give them ours."