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Tennessee-Illinois Top 20 Matchup Presents Fascinating On Court Matchups

Photo By Courtney Bay/ Illinois Athletics

Tennessee basketball’s early season gauntlet continues at high noon Saturday when the 17th-ranked Vols host No. 20 Illinois at Thompson-Boling Arena at Food City Center.

It’s Tennessee’s ninth game of the season and its fifth against a top 15 KenPom team.

The matchup also pits four of the better wing sized players in the country against one another. Tennessee’s Dalton Knecht and Josiah-Jordan James and Illinois’ Terrence Shannon Jr. and Marcus Domask are all either 6-foot-6 or 6-foot-7. But their skillsets make for intriguing on court matchups.

“They’re excited to guard Terrance. They’re excited to guard Marcus Domask,” Tennessee assistant coach Rod Clark said of the Vols on Friday. “They’re excited to guard all ’em.”

Terrence Shannon Jr. spent the first three years of his college tenure playing off the ball at Texas Tech but has become Illinois’ primary ball handler, playing 68% of minutes running the point for the Fighting Illini this season.

Shannon playing point guard presents opponents all sorts of matchup problems but he doesn’t play like a point guard. The 6-foot-6 guard averages 21.6 points and just 2.8 assists per game this season.

“Terrence Shannon is really good, man,” Clark said. “He’s good getting downhill. He’s really athletic. He’s really strong. He’s physical and, I say this when we’re scouting and things, I told our team yesterday, ‘Hey, we gotta keep him off our left hand. Fellas, I’m not a dummy. It’s easier said than done.’ … He’s playing like All-American right now.”

Who guards Shannon in Tennessee’s starting lineup will be fascinating. Zakai Zeigler is a stout defender but is probably too short to do so effectively. James is the best equipped to defend the National Player of the Year candidate.

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But the problem with James guarding Shannon is how big Illinois’ starting lineup is. The Fighting Illini’s whole starting lineup is 6-foot-6 or bigger and presents issues for how the Vols’ small ball lineup would defend the front court of Domask, Quincy Guerrier and Coleman Hawkins.

That seemingly makes Santiago Vescovi the most likely candidate to defend Illinois’ star. Jahmai Mashack will likely shoulder the responsibility during his minutes off the bench.

“Really good team,” Clark said of Illinois. “I think they’re big, they’re versatile. They have a lot of guys that can play multiple positions. You know, their five man sometimes can look like their point guard. Their point guard can sometimes look like their five man. Their two guard can look like a four man. And those are, in today’s day and age in positionless basketball is, that’s what everybody wants.”

Domask is a fifth-year senior who played his first four seasons at Southern Illinois before transferring to Illinois. The 6-foot-6 grad transfer has had quiet games but has been fantastic in the Fighting Illini’s three challenging games to date— scoring 18 points against Marquette, 15 against Rutgers and 33 points on Tuesday night against FAU.

He’s a versatile scorer who can beat teams from the perimeter, especially corner threes, and score inside. Illinois has two strong wing scorers but Tennessee is no slouch in that way either.

James is in the midst of his best season in Knoxville. Fully healthy, the fifth year senior is averaging 11.4 points (49 FG%, 43 3PT%) to go along with 6.2 rebounds per game.

“He doesn’t have any insecurities with his game because he kind of knows who he is,” Clark said of James. “But it’s been amazing to watch him, man. I think he’s shooting like two less threes (per game) than he averaged last year. And he’s making about the same amount.

Knecht has been a revelation for Tennessee after transferring from Northern Colorado. The 6-foot-6 wing is averaging 19 points per game on 49% shooting from the field and 39% shooting from three-point range.

Tipoff between Illinois and Tennessee is at noon ET at Thompson-Boling Arena at Food City Center. Rich Waltz, Bill Raftery, Jay Wright and Jon Rothstein are on the call for CBS.

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