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Terrence Shannon Jr. and No. 11 Illinois take on FDU

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If the season ended today, fifth-year senior guard Terrence Shannon Jr. almost certainly would have achieved enough to become No. 11 Illinois’ third Associated Press first-team All-American in the past four seasons.

Shannon, who ranks third in KenPom.com’s Player of the Year standings, enters Friday’s non-conference game between Illinois (9-2) and Fairleigh Dickinson (6-7) averaging 21.7 points and 4.5 rebounds per game. He shoots 51.4 percent from the field and 40.8 percent on 3-pointers, paces the Illini in assists, blocks and steals, and defends the opponent’s best guard every night.

Illinois coach Brad Underwood sings his praises every day — but hits his highest notes when sharing how Shannon’s brilliance boosts the collective.

A few recent examples: Marcus Domask, who has started 117 games in his career, matched Shannon’s career-high 33 points in a Dec. 5 win over Florida Atlantic with his own career-high 33 points. Quincy Guerrier, who has played 142 games in his career, buttressed Shannon’s 30 points against Missouri on Dec. 22 with a career-high 28 points. Coleman Hawkins added a season-high 15 points against Missouri as he drilled 3 of 5 3-pointers with the Tigers’ defense focused elsewhere.

“We’re basically pick your poison,” Underwood said after the Missouri game. “Who do you want to stop? Coleman is a pick-and-pop guy. You saw tonight, if you let him get his feet set, he’s going to make it. We’re not just one-dimensional. We’re not just a Terrence Shannon basketball team. You leave Quincy open, that opens up the floor. Space is what the game is about. And we’re able to space.”

According to KenPom.com, Illinois ranks 15th in the nation in Division I experience. When the Illini tip off each game, they go with three fifth-year players, one fourth year and one sophomore — and the other three players in their rotation are in their fifth, fourth and third year out of high school.

“(It’s) maturity,” Underwood said. “They’re playing to win. There’s no other agendas. They all are mature enough to know that winning helps all of them. There’s no ‘me, me, me.’ It’s all about their approach. They have fun together. They’re connected. They’re like personalities. There are no knuckleheads. Everything you think of that you could want to have in a connected team, we have. And that’s pretty cool.”

This veteran bunch is in the middle of a nine-game stretch against schools that played in the NCAA Tournament last season. Fairleigh Dickinson is No. 5 in this run and ordinarily would rank last in terms of name recognition — but these are the Knights who became the second No. 16 seed in NCAA history to knock off a No. 1 seed when they beat Purdue last year.

While FDU head coach Tobin Anderson jumped to Iona shortly after stunning Purdue, the Knights elevated 39-year-old assistant Jack Castleberry to the top spot.

The Knights retain three starters and three backups from last year’s squad — including center Ansley Almonor (16.7 points, 5.8 rebounds) and Boilermakers slayer Sean Moore (11.5 points, 7.3 rebounds) — but the magic’s not quite the same this year even though they’re still playing at a dizzying tempo.

They are coming off a 92-69 loss to Fairfield before the holiday break, a game that saw the Knights outshot on field goals, three-point attempts and at the free-throw line. They also were outrebounded 40-37 and had 12 turnovers to eight for Fairfield.

“We need a lot more focus on some of the scouting report stuff and get back to who we are supposed to be,” Castleberry said after the game.

According to KenPom.com, the Knights rank 358th out of 362 Division I teams in defensive efficiency as they surrender 116.2 points per 100 possessions. Illinois, on the other hand, stands 13th nationally at 92.9 points allowed per 100 possessions.

“Everything we do (offensively) is based on the defensive side,” Underwood said.

–Field Level Media

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