Texas basketball: Three keys to victory vs. Illinois

Coleman Hawkins Mandatory Credit: Ron Johnson-USA TODAY Sports
Coleman Hawkins Mandatory Credit: Ron Johnson-USA TODAY Sports /

Texas basketball will be tested Tuesday night as the No. 2 ranked Longhorns square off against the No. 17 ranked Illinois Fighting Illini inside Madison Square Garden. The 7:00 PM local tip is the first leg of a doubleheader played in the Jimmy V Classic.

The Longhorns are looking to improve to 7-0 as they face their first true test of the season away from the Moody Center. The last time Texas took the court was on Thursday night, a 72-67 victory over the then seventh-ranked Creighton Blue Jays.

On the other hand, the Illini are coming off a 71-66 loss in College Park on Friday night against an undefeated Maryland team. Illinois holds a 6-2 record this season with a notable win over UCLA and the aforementioned loss to Maryland, as well as a 70-61 loss to No. 3 Virginia.

Texas and Illinois are teams poised to be at the top of their respective conferences all season long, making this December non-con tilt all the more interesting.

Many different storylines are packed into this top-20 match, such as Chris Beard coaching against former Red Raider Terrance Shannon Jr.

I have narrowed down the three critical components to a Texas victory on Tuesday night. Let’s dive in.

How Texas basketball beats Illinois inside Madison Square Garden

1. Win the three-point battle

Illinois loves to shoot the three-ball. A month into the season, the Illini rank 20th nationally in three-point attempts per game (28.3) and 29th in makes (9.9). Knocking down 35 percent of their three-point attempts at such a high volume is a cause for concern for the Longhorns.

Terrence Shannon Jr. leads Illinois in both attempts per game (6.8) and percentage (38.9). The senior guard played two seasons under Coach Beard at Texas Tech and is undoubtedly the player Beard has centered his defensive game plan around.

Two things to note here. First off, Shannon is a player who can heat up very quickly. When he does catch fire, he will let it fly from anywhere on the court (see 2H of the UCLA win).

Secondly, Illinois has five other players not named Shannon that are attempting 3.4 or more threes per game. This team does a great job moving the ball around the perimeter and making the extra pass to an open shooter.

Typically Coach Brad Underwood will have four players on the court with whom he is comfortable attempting threes. This emphasizes communication and help-defense from the Longhorns when things start to break down.

On the defensive side of the ball, Illinois has done an excellent job at running teams off the three-point line. They are allowing just 5.6 made three-pointers per game on 30.2 percent shooting.

Because of the significance Illinois puts on the three-point arc on both ends of the floor, I am hard-pressed to put together a scenario where Texas loses this game if they outshoot the Illini from deep.

2. Pressure the Illinois backcourt

One area that teams have been able to expose Illinois in this season is forcing turnovers. The Illini are committing nearly 15 turnovers per game this season and rank 291st in non-steal turnover percentage, according to KenPom.

A non-steal turnover happens when teams throw the ball out of bounds, travel, or commit an offensive foul. Although these do not hurt you as much as a live-ball turnover, they are microcosms of a team’s discipline.

Unfortunately for Coach Underwood, these things happen when four of your rotational guards are freshmen, including true freshman point guard Skyy Clark.

Clark was a high four-star prospect in the class of 2022 and is a player with a future at the next level. That said, he has had an up-and-down first month of the season and is a player who will cough up the ball if extended pressure is applied.

I would like to see Coach Beard mix in full-court pressure with Marcus Carr, Tyrese Hunter, and Sir’Jabari Rice. I believe Texas could find a lot of success in pressuring up to 90 feet.

Even if Beard does not extend his pressure that high up, look for the Longhorns to be very aggressive on the wings, denying passing lanes while trying to make the simple things hard for the Illinois offense.

3. Contain Coleman Hawkins

I’ve mentioned Terrance Shannon Jr as the guy Chris Beard will gameplan around, and rightfully so. Shannon is by far Illinois’ best scorer and is a player who could realistically take over this matchup. That said, Illini forward Coleman Hawkins will be the critical x-factor in this game.

Hawkins, a 6-foot-10 junior, has thrived in his role as a first-year starter. He is averaging 10.1 points, 6.0 rebounds, and a team-high 4.1 assists.

Coach Underwood likes to station Hawkins in the high post. In this position, he can quickly set ball screens atop the key while popping out beyond the arc to attempt a three (of which he has connected 37 percent of the time this season). However, the big man is most dangerous in the high post because of his ability to catch, face, and examine the defensive.

Hawkins is adept at swinging the ball to the opposite corner for a wide-open three when he gets the ball in this position. He also attacks the rim with strength and has a feathery touch within eight feet of the hoop.

I am intrigued to see who Coach Beard matches up with on Hawkins. He is bigger than Dillon Mitchell but will drag Dylan Disu/Christian Bishop too far outside. Whoever gets the matchup, it will be paramount that pressure is applied.

dark. Next. Texas vs. Illinois: 3 bold predictions

Hawkins is a fantastic offensive weapon when given time to assess the defense, almost like a quarterback sitting back in the pocket. If the Texas defense can make him uncomfortable, it will throw the whole flow of the Illini offense off.