Is age the solution for Illinois to stop Connecticut’s repeat run?

BOSTON — The starters for Illinois are 19, 22, 23, 23 and 23 years old, and this veteran status may be the Illini’s biggest advantage when it comes to postseason play.

Well, that and senior Terrence Shannon Jr., who has already put together the best three-game tournament stretch in program history.

The lineup’s relatively advanced age could balance out one of No. 1 Connecticut’s own advantages. With four players back from last year’s national championship-winning rotation, the Huskies are the most tournament-tested team still alive in this year’s bracket. With nine postseason wins in a row coming by an average of just under 23 points per game, the Huskies don’t lack for confidence, either.

“It’s just a really deep team, well-coached, and they play really hard,” senior guard Marcus Domask said. “It’s just a complete team. They check all the boxes.”

But as they head into the program’s first Elite Eight appearance since 2005, the No. 3 Illini can point to age and experience as one of several factors that may be in their favor against a seemingly unstoppable opponent.

FOLLOW THE MADNESS: NCAA basketball bracket, scores, schedules, teams and more.

FOLLOW THE MADNESS: NCAA basketball bracket, scores, schedules, teams and more.

“I feel like there’s, like, no pressure on us,” said senior forward Coleman Hawkins. “I feel like it’s another game. We’re going to prepare the same way. We’re going to practice the same way. We’re going to go about film the same way. So it’s no pressure for us. I feel confident. I feel comfortable.”

In addition to the five starters, Illinois can bring three more veteran contributors off the bench in 22-year-old guard Justin Harmon and 21-year-old forwards Dain Dainja and Luke Goode. Overall, there are five seniors, two juniors and one sophomore in the Illini’s primary rotation.

This is also a team with length across the board: Every player in the starting lineup is at least 6-foot-6 and there are three players in the rotation standing at least 6-foot-8, though none quite to the height of the Huskies’ 7-foot-2 center Donovan Clingan.

The Illini are “an older, experienced, veteran group with some bigger bodies, and they were the more physical team for a large part of the game,” Iowa State coach T.J. Otzelberger said after Thursday’s loss in the regional semifinals.

Illinois has been tested by injuries, including a knee injury that has plagued Hawkins for most of this season. Off the court, the team has been forced to weather Shannon’s suspension after his arrest in December on rape charges, a suspension that was reversed after six games by a federal judge who ruled that Illinois had violated Shannon’s civil rights. Shannon has not spoken to the media during the tournament on the advice of his legal counsel.

“I just think everybody has been through a lot,” Domask said. “Whether we’ve been on winning teams, losing teams, close games, blowouts, everybody on our team has just been so battle-tested that nothing anybody can throw at us isn’t something we haven’t seen before.”

And in Shannon, the Illini have the best pure scorer in this year’s tournament and a difference-making talent. While battling foul issues, he scored 29 points in 30 minutes of action against the Cyclones and scored six points down the stretch to seal the 72-69 win.

Shannon is the first Illinois player to score at least 25 points in three tournament games in a row and is now averaging 23.5 points per game, good for third nationally and the fourth-highest single-season mark in program history.

“He’s strong. He’s crafty around the rim,” Clingan said. “He’s an elite player, a lottery pick.”

The Illinois defense has also made huge strides during a seven-game winning streak that included the program’s fourth Big Ten tournament championship. Since kicking off this stretch in the wake of a loss to Purdue on March 5, the Illini have held four opponents to under 70 points, including all three tournament opponents.

This recent performance comes after almost a season-long struggle on the defensive end. Even with this month’s uptick in production, Illinois ranks 222nd nationally in scoring defense and 348th in turnovers forced per game. According to, the Illini rank 84th in the country in adjusted defensive efficiency, last among teams still alive in the tournament.

“Some teams get hot and get that confidence on defense, and then they can be the best defense in the country for an extended period of time,” Goode said. “That’s kind of the mentality that we’ve had, you know. Our metrics throughout the whole season might not show we’re the best defense in the country, but it’s kind of the mindset. Like, why not be the best defense in the country for this tournament? That’s kind of how we’ve thought.”

Combined, the Illini’s experience, Shannon’s scoring prowess and the team’s improved defense makes them a substantially tougher test than what the Huskies have faced in reaching the Elite Eight. While UConn has obliterated every postseason opponent since the start of last year’s tournament, Illinois can offer something different that what the Huskies have seen this month: an equally confident and veteran group that won’t be intimidated by this matchup with a juggernaut.

That could be enough to spark a mammoth upset.

“I don’t think we have to play a perfect game, because no one really ever plays a perfect game,” Domask said. “We’ve definitely got to be on top of our game, for sure.”

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