Nov. 14—CHAMPAIGN — What Brad Underwood is seeing at Ubben Basketball Complex this season is giving him flashbacks to the 2019-20 season. Back when Ayo Dosunmu, Andres Feliz and Trent Frazier went at it every single day during Illinois men's basketball practices.
Those three sharpened each others' skill as defenders. Illinois went from a defense barely ranked inside the top 100 nationally to productive and efficient enough to crack the top 40. Improvements that carried over a season later for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament with a top 10 defense.
It's been a similar scene this season on the practice court with Terrence Shannon Jr. pushing the defensive intensity. That kind of energy and effort on the defensive end of the court from an All-Big Ten caliber guard and potential All-American is a catalyst for a defense currently ranked 20th in adjusted efficiency.
The kind of defense No. 23 Illinois (2-0) will need with No. 4 Marquette (2-0) coming to State Farm Center for a 7 p.m. tip on Tuesday night in the Gavitt Tip-Off Games and the first significant nonconference matchup for the Illini this season.
"It's a big reason we're as good as we are is the job Terrence does defensively," Underwood said. Shannon is coming off a defensive performance this past Friday night agianst Oakland that saw him bottle up Golden Grizzlies shooter Jack Gohlke during the Illini's 64-53 win at State Farm Center.
"His commitment level on that end is extremely high," Underwood continued. "He's pushing it every single day in practice. He and Justin (Harmon) get going at each other, and they make each other better. That becomes very, very contagious."
Illinois had its best defensive stretch of the still young season down the stretch against Oakland. The Golden Grizzlies didn't score for nearly seven minutes, as the Illini used 11 consecutive stops to turn a three-point lead into a 16-point advantage.
"We have to continue to guard," Underwood said. "We can't rest on that."
The defensive challenge intensifies Tuesday against Marquette. The Golden Eagles have eight players averaging at least 6.5 points, with Kam Jones at the top at 21.5 points per game on a 56/50/87 shooting slash. What concerns Underwood the most, though, is Marquette's passing. All-American point guard Tyler Kolek has 10 assists in two games, three of his teammates have at least six and the Golden Eagles have 43 assists on 69 made field goals so far this season.
"This is a team that has elite passing," Underwood said. "They're an elite cutting team. You can't relax away from the ball. You're only as strong as your weakest link. No matter who's in the game, a team like Marquette, because of their passing, will pick on your weak link. We've got to make sure whoever is in the game is dialed in. If you're not, they'll exploit you."
Underwood is also preparing his team to be ready to play an uptempo game against Marquette. Oakland slowed down Friday's game out of necessity, as to not let Illinois' own ability in transition run the Golden Grizzlies off the court.
The Golden Eagles won't have that limitation. Transition defense becomes critical against the reigning Big East regular-season champion and Big East tournament champion that returns much of its roster from last season's 29-win team.
"It's a game where we're going to have to have our track shoes on," Underwood said. "They're elite in transition. They take a ton of early threes and make a lot of them. If you give them easy baskets in transition, it could be a long night. They could score 100 very easy the way they get going."
Illinois' defensive answer could be the big, physical lineup it used to close out the win against Oakland with Shannon, Ty Rodgers, Luke Goode, Quincy Guerrier and Coleman Hawkins. Shannon and Rodgers are the shortest of that bunch at 6-foot-6, but neither is small and Underwood called Rodgers the strongest player on the team.
"The best thing was it was a group that didn't make mistakes," Underwood said. "We were error-free in that stretch."