The Longhorns enter as one of the few remaining undefeated teams in the nation at 6-0, boasting a 19-point win over then-No. 2 Gonzaga and most recently, a five-point win over then-No. 7 Creighton. That was the Horns’ only close contest of the season to date, though, with Texas winning its other five games by an average of 29.4 points.
Illinois, on the other hand, arrives in New York in hopes of bouncing back after falling on the road to then-No. 22 Maryland, 71-66, the last time out. Including their other loss to then-No. 16 Virginia, 70-61, the Illini have dropped two of their last four games. But given that Maryland and Virginia are now ranked No. 13 and No. 3, respectively, that’s certainly not a knock on a really good Illinois team that’s also notched a top-10 win over UCLA.
In any case, of two high-level teams that have been tested early, it’s Texas that has been passing, but unlike the Longhorns, the Fighting Illini were away from home for the major ranked games they’ve come up short in. So, Illinois may be a bit more in their comfort zone early on, but Texas head coach Chris Beard is confident in his team’s ability to perform on this stage, as well.
“I think our ability to play well in different environments, different settings, different game days, different times is big,” Beard said.
For Texas, playing well begins and ends with their dynamic backcourt of sophomore Tyrese Hunter and senior Marcus Carr. The Longhorns’ leading scorers are collectively pouring in 31.5 points per contest as the headliners of a squad that ranks 15th in adjusted offense, per KenPom. The duo is complemented by a wealth of depth and high-level athleticism in the form of guys like New Mexico transfer Sir’Jabari Rice, Dillion Mitchell (elite athleticism, in his case), Christian Bishop, Dylan Disu, and Arterio Morris. Add in Timmy Allen as he looks to build upon his much-needed breakthrough against Creighton, and Brock Cunningham and you get a dynamic, elite-level defense that ranks No. 3 in adjusted defense, per KenPom.
When things start clicking for this group, they can smother teams in minutes, and top to bottom, it’s a team that doesn’t have many holes.
But one of them is size, and that’s a challenge Illinois will present after Texas struggled mightily with Creighton’s Ryan Kalkbrenner the last time out. On Tuesday, Texas will be matched with a 6’10 presence in Colman Hawkins (10.2 PPG, 6 RPG) and the 6’9, 270-pound Dain Dainja (11.1 PPG, 6.1 RPG), so Disu, Bishop, Cunningham, and even Mitchell will need to play sound defense without getting into foul trouble.
Elsewhere, Illinois will present a pair of streaky freshman guards in Skyy Clark and Jayden Epps, who’ve had flashes en route to a combined 18 points per contest, but they’ve also struggled with consistency. Sharpshooter RJ Melendez should be a major factor offensively, as well, as evidence by his 45 points in the last three games.
But the star of the show is a familiar name, for both Texas and especially Chris Beard — Texas Tech transfer Terrence Shannon Jr, who once started 33 of 57 games for Beard and is now thriving with 19.8 points and 6.4 boards as a senior.
“I never get tired of talking about TJ Shannon,” Beard said. “TJ’s a guy that I really enjoyed recruiting, really enjoyed the relationship with had with his family. He’s somebody that I believe in. I think he’s an NBA player… What makes TJ great is he’s one of those guys that’s willing to do the things that other guys aren’t willing to do… He was fun to coach, he’s a great competitor.”
For both Texas and Illinois, Tuesday’s matchup should serve as another great early-season test. Both teams can get hot, create some havoc defensively, and get high-level contributions from several guys. That edge would seem to favor the veteran Longhorns, but for obvious reasons, this isn’t a game Texas is taking lightly and Beard praised Brad Underwood’s team as one that could be in Houston in a few months.
“We’ve got great respect for Illinois, one of the best teams in college basketball,” Beard said. “This is going to be a great game in Madison Square Garden.
How to watch
Time: 6 p.m. Central
Livestream: WatchESPN, SlingTV
Odds: Texas -4, per DraftKings Sportsbook