October 26, 2023 

Making the case for Illinois as a Big Ten title contender

Don't sleep on the Illini

Iowa, Ohio State, Indiana and Maryland are the four most popular picks to win the Big Ten in 2023-24 and advance the farthest in the NCAA Tournament. But what about Illinois?

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The Illini finished last season 22-10 (11-7 Big Ten) and reached the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 20 years, losing to Mississippi State in the First Four. The 15-win improvement from 2021-22 in Shauna Green’s first season as head coach only heightens expectations entering this season, and her group will be well-positioned to meet them.

In an era of college basketball where more roster changes happen than ever before, two factors tend to have the greatest impact on team success: experience and roster continuity. Illinois will have both, returning all five of its starters.

It’s exceedingly rare to find teams that have the same starting five in consecutive years; Iowa did so last year, and that level of continuity played a large role in the Hawkeyes reaching the National Championship Game.

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Before even diving into the roster, though, first consider that last season – when nobody had any expectations for Illinois – the Illini pushed Indiana to overtime in a 65-61 loss in the first month of the season and then turned around and beat Iowa, 90-86, on New Year’s Day.

In subsequent losses to Ohio State, Indiana and Maryland, Illinois kept the margin within 11 in three of four games. Moral victories don’t mean a ton, of course, but it’s clear that Green’s program was built to compete with the top of the conference last year. With pretty much all of its talent coming back and other teams having lost key players, the Illini sit in an admirable position in an incredibly deep conference.

Green’s first season in Champaign was remarkable in part because it caught practically everybody by surprise. A team that hadn’t won more than three conference games in nearly 10 years turned around and won 11 with a new coach and system in place. Entering this season, Illinois isn’t some group of plucky underdogs; this is a program with a legitimate shot of winning a Big Ten title.

Old faces and new

Among the seven Big Ten teams that reached the NCAA Tournament last season, Illinois lost the lowest percentage of contributors based on win shares (5.76%); Indiana was the second-lowest at 15.6%. In other words, Illinois returns the largest percentage of its impactful contributors this season compared to the other six programs.

Diving into that more specifically, Makira Cook, Genesis Bryant and Adalia McKenzie were three of the best guards in the conference last season. Cook finished fourth in the Big Ten in scoring at 18.4 points per game (behind Caitlin Clark, MacKenzie Holmes and Diamond Miller), while also finishing top-10 in assists. Bryant wasn’t far behind, averaging 15.2 points and 3.6 assists, and McKenzie solidified herself as a reliable scoring option, averaging 13.6 points and finishing second on the team with 6.1 rebounds per game.

In the post, Kendall Bostic elevated her play as well. Always a strong rebounder, Green challenged her to average a double-double, and she nearly delivered with 10.2 points and 9.8 rebounds.

With three talented guards and the top rebounder in the conference returning, that lays the foundation for a successful 2023-24. But the biggest challenge the Illini had to navigate last season was a lack of depth, so the quality of contributions Green receives from players outside her top six will likely be the most determinative factor in how far the Illini go.

“We didn’t have the depth,” Green told The Next in the spring about last year’s team. “It’s not an excuse, it just is what it is. … I think depth will hopefully help us finish some games. You never know how much that came into play, just six kids, seven kids playing pretty much a ton of minutes. That’s how we’re going to try to get there: Growth from experience and learning and just adding some more pieces to the team to give us more depth.”

In the offseason, Green added 6’3 center Camille Hobby from NC State for more support on the interior. The Illini also welcomed Shay Bollin, a 6’3 sophomore transfer from Duke, who could see some time at forward. Freshmen guards Gretchen Dolan and Cori Allen join the mix too, though neither will likely play much with Cook, Bryant and McKenzie eating most of the guard minutes. Still, they’ll start their development with an eye toward the future success of the program.

Illinois likely isn’t on most people’s radar entering the season, even though it clocked in at 23rd in the season-opening AP Poll. Still, with immense talent returning, reinforcements added and a coach who proved herself in her first season in the conference, the Illini are as strongly positioned as some of the Big Ten’s perennial contenders to take home a conference championship in the 2023-24 season.

Written by Eric Rynston-Lobel

Eric Rynston-Lobel has been a contributor to The Next since August 2022. He covered Northwestern women's basketball extensively in his four years as a student there for WNUR and now works as a sports reporter for the Concord Monitor in New Hampshire.

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