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Illinois men's basketball preview | Veteran rotation could be crucial

Nov. 4—Brad Underwood's 25th-ranked Illini head into the Nov. 6 opener against Eastern Illinois with a better idea of what the rotation could be this season. Beat writer Scott Richey breaks down that veteran group:

Ty Rodgers

➜ Position: Guard

➜ Vitals: 6-6, 210

➜ Number: 20

➜ What he did last season: Brad Underwood has some regrets about how he utilized Rodgers as a true freshman last season, trying to maximize what the Illini could get from the versatile guard. Spread thin trying to figure out Big Ten basketball playing multiple positions, Rodgers acknowledged he struggled during the first half of his debut college basketball season and lost confidence. But he still played in all 33 games and averaged 3.3 points and four rebounds.

➜ How he can improve: Rodgers' offseason efforts were centered around refining the skills necessary to run the Illinois offense and equal time working on his shooting stroke. The two go hand-in-hand. Rodgers will be able to overpower smaller guards attacking the basket, but has to be capable of knocking down shots to prevent opposing defenses to play 5-on-4. Improving his 38.7 percent free-throw shooting is important, too.

➜ What his role will be this season: While Underwood lamented not playing Rodgers at point guard more last season (when he was already playing several freshmen there), Illinois still had a veteran point guard on its transfer portal wish list. Striking out on RayJ Dennis means the ball will be in Rodgers' hands instead. At least some of the time. A steady hand is really all the Illini need given the talent on the rest of the roster.

Terrence Shannon Jr.

➜ Hometown: Chicago

➜ Position: Guard

➜ Vitals: 6-6, 225

➜ Number: 0

➜ What he did last season: Shannon left Texas Tech looking for an opportunity to be the guy at the top of other teams' scouting reports. The Chicago native found that in Champaign. The fifth-year senior set career-highs in scoring, rebounding and assists in his debut season for the Illini, averaging 17.2 points, 4.6 rebounds and 2.8 assists. Production that solidified Shannon as one of the best players in the Big Ten.

➜ How he can improve: Consistency and leadership. A self-reflective Shannon admits he didn't have enough of either last season. The comfort he has in year two at Illinois has already helped on the leadership front, but consistency is a daily challenge. Shannon showed flashes of dominance last season — 8 of 9 three-point shooting and 29 points to beat UCLA stood out — but there weren't enough of those moments during a four-month season.

➜ What his role will be this season: Illinois needs, at minimum, another First Team All-Big Ten caliber season from its best player. Pulling off the full Ayo Dosunmu transformation and picking up an All-American honor by season's end wouldn't hurt. Shannon showed in the Illini's charity exhibition win against No. 1 Kansas this past Sunday night that he can be that kind of player as a freight train attacking the basket, an efficient shooter and a tough perimeter defender.

Marcus Domask

➜ Hometown: Waupun, Wis.

➜ Position: Guard

➜ Vitals: 6-6, 215

➜ Number: 3

➜ What he did last season: Domask capped his four-year career at Southern Illinois the same way he started it — as one of the best players in the Missouri Valley Conference. The guard debuted for the Salukis as the MVC Newcomer and Freshman of the Year and left Carbondale as a First Team All-MVC selection after averaging 16.7 points, 5.8 rebounds and 3.8 assists (all but the assists a career-high) as a senior.

➜ How he can improve: Think minor improvements for a veteran player with four productive seasons already under his belt. The primary challenge will come from moving up from the MVC to the Big Ten. The former is a solid mid-major conference. The latter is one of the best conferences in the country. Domask will face tougher tests as a defender in the Big Ten, and the same will be true for his playmaking efforts offensively with the ball in his hands.

➜ What his role will be this season: Domask hasn't drawn comparisons from Brad Underwood to former Stephen F. Austin star Thomas Walkup by accident. The Illinois coach sees the same kind of productive, versatile player in Domask as the guy that helped him win 89 games in three seasons with the Lumberjacks. Domask will primarily play off the ball, but his combination of passing ability and sound decision-making means he'll get his chance to run the offense, too.

Quincy Guerrier

➜ Hometown: Montreal

➜ Position: Forward

➜ Vitals: 6-8, 230

➜ Number: 13

➜ What he did last season: Guerrier fell somewhat out of favor at Oregon in the second half of last season. Or at least out of the Ducks' starting lineup. The wing was still a productive rebounder coming off the bench in his fourth college season and an even more efficient three-point shooter as a reserve, but his playing time took a significant dip. Guerrier wound up finishing what would become his final season in Eugene, Ore., averaging nine points and 4.6 rebounds.

➜ How he can improve: Guerrier has already shown improvement as a free-throw shooter. He's a career 63 percent shooter — and hit at just a 58 percent clip last season at Oregon on limited attempts per game — but he made 9 of 12 free throws in Illinois' two exhibition games. The primary goal for the big man during his lone season with the Illini, however, is matching the rebounder he was at Syracuse with the shooter he was at Oregon.

➜ What his role will be this season: Guerrier is the oldest player on an old Illinois roster, having turned 24 in May. By default, he'll provide a veteran presence given both his age and his experience playing at the power-conference level with two seasons each at Syracuse and Oregon. From a basketball standpoint, the plan for Guerrier is clear — knock down open shots and rebound.

Coleman Hawkins

➜ Hometown: Sacramento, Calif.

➜ Position: Forward

➜ Vitals: 6-10, 230

➜ Number: 33

➜ What he did last season: Hawkins showed flashes of the versatile potential Brad Underwood has discussed since signing Hawkins back as part of the Class of 2020. The most obvious moment was his triple-double against Syracuse with 15 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists. Hawkins also wound up with the ball in his hands running the Illinois offense regularly last season, as the big man embodied the "point forward" idea out of necessity.

➜ How he can improve: Assertiveness on the offensive end is a major talking point around what will likely be Hawkins' final season in Champaign. Especially since it was a significant part of the feedback he got during the NBA draft process. There were times last season Hawkins was too unselfish. Making the extra pass and trying to get a teammate a good look is fine. So is shooting the ball when you're open.

➜ What his role will be this season: Illinois asked a lot of Hawkins last season on a young, mostly inexperienced team. Too much, probably. Underwood will still want to take advantage of all Hawkins can do — at both ends — but the pressure won't be the same as simply one of several veteran players on the court. Those other experienced players might also be more prepared for a pass seemingly out of nowhere, but right on the money.

Justin Harmon

➜ Hometown: Chicago

➜ Position: Guard

➜ Vitals: 6-4, 200

➜ Number: 4

➜ What he did last season: Harmon had the best year of his college career last winter at Utah Valley, averaging 14 points, 3.8 rebounds and 2.9 assists for the Wolverines as they won 28 games and reached the NIT semifinals. Harmon wasn't simply at his most productive in what turned out to be his final season in Orem, Utah. He was also at his most efficient, shooting 45 percent from the field overall and 34 percent from three-point range.

➜ How he can improve: With Illinois trending toward what seems to be a point guard-by-committee approach this season, Harmon is going to find the ball in his hands with the expectations he generate some offense in the process either for himself or his teammates. That's where the Illini would probably like to see his penchant for turnovers addressed. Harmon also set a new career-high for turnovers during the 2022-23 season, giving up the ball three times per game.

➜ What his role will be this season: Harmon currently projects as the first guard off the Illinois bench, whether that's spelling Terrence Shannon Jr. or Ty Rodgers. There's also a real chance, given his experience, he'll factor into the Illini's closing group like he did in the charity exhibition win against No. 1 Kansas. The rest is simple. Harmon will be counted on to make open shots and maintain the level of perimeter defense guys like Shannon and Rodgers set.

Luke Goode

➜ Hometown: Fort Wayne, Ind.

➜ Position: Guard

➜ Vitals: 6-7, 205

➜ Number: 10

➜ What he did last season: If you ask Brad Underwood, Goode was all set to break into Illinois' starting lineup as a sophomore last season. Then he suffered a fractured left foot in the Illini's "secret" scrimmage against Kansas, needed surgery and missed the first two-thirds of the season. Goode returned in February, but faced an uphill climb in returning to the form he showed heading into the season.

➜ How he can improve: Being healthy helps. Goode had a full offseason worth of improvement both on the court with his teammates and coaches and off it with strength and conditioning coach Adam Fletcher. The rest is just continued progress still early in his career (given last year's injury). Remain a consistent shooter. Rebound more. And continue to build off last year's growth as a defender.

➜ What his role will be this season: Illinois' three-point shooting last season ranked among the least efficient efforts in program history. That was with Goode making 42 percent of his limited attempts from beyond the arc. A full season from the taller guard should help even more given he's a career 39 percent three-point shooter and connected at a 40-percent clip as a high school senior at Fort Wayne (Ind.) Homestead.

Dain Dainja

➜ Hometown: Brooklyn Park, Minn.

➜ Position: Forward

➜ Vitals: 6-9, 255

➜ Number: 42

➜ What he did last season: Last season was Dainja's third in college, but first actually getting on the court. The big man redshirted as a true freshman on Baylor's 2020-21 team that won a national title because of an injury and transferred to Illinois amid the 2021-22 season after playing three minutes in three games for the Bears. Dainja's first real opportunity coincided with a breakout season, as he averaged 9.5 points and 5.5 rebounds for the Illini.

➜ How he can improve: It's a typical offseason trope that players are in the best shape of their lives. For Dainja, it's true, after he has slimmed down from 270 pounds to 255 pounds, and his conditioning is the best it's been. From a basketball standpoint, Dainja is focused on being more patient with the ball in his hands in the post. Defensively, the focus has to be on pick-and-roll coverage.

➜ What his role will be this season: The only information about Illinois' rotation at hand is two exhibition games, but it seems like Underwood is leaning toward Dainja being the first frontcourt option off the bench. How much Dainja ultimately plays will at least be partially dictated by matchups. The Illini will need him against some of the other bigs they'll face (i.e. Zach Edey), but his defense could dictate his ultimate role.