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Terrence Shannon Jr. is an NCAA tournament star under a legal cloud

Terrence Shannon Jr. is an NCAA tournament star under a legal cloud

Tooba Shakir 54 years ago 0 2

BOSTON — Terrence Shannon Jr. deflected a pass, collected the ball and stormed down the floor, a blur of Illinois orange. His emphatic dunk with less than 30 seconds left Thursday night ended Iowa State’s hopes of winning and applied the finishing touch to another surpassing performance. Shannon carried the Fighting Illini to a 72-69 victory and into the Elite Eight with 29 points, five rebounds and three steals.

And then he disappeared from public view.

Shannon is playing — and starring — in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament under a cloud. He was charged with rape in December. He is adamant he is innocent. After Illinois suspended him, he had to sue his school for the chance to play. He is the nation’s third-leading scorer and the best player on one of 12 teams with a chance to win the national championship. He is also at the center of an ongoing moral and legal saga.

Shannon, 23, has not spoken publicly since he was charged, a stance he has not changed even as he becomes a central figure in one of America’s largest sporting spectacles. He has not been available during open locker room sessions as all other healthy players are. He has not sat behind a dais adorned with March Madness logos. He has not pulled on a headset for CBS. He has been a force on the court and invisible off it.

After Shannon led Illinois to its first Elite Eight since 2005, an NCAA official placed nameplates in front of microphones for Illinois’ postgame news conference. He held one with Shannon’s name. Another official noticed Shannon’s placard and told him, “I don’t think you’re going to need that.”

Coach Brad Underwood, whom the university has made clear had nothing to do with Shannon’s suspension or reinstatement, has answered questions about Shannon throughout the season. Other school leaders have been reticent. Approached for comment early Friday morning outside the Illini’s locker room, Illinois Athletic Director Josh Whitman said, “Not today.”

In December, the Douglas County (Kan.) district attorney issued a warrant for Shannon’s arrest and charged him with one count of rape. A woman told police a man had touched her sexually at a bar after an Illinois vs. Kansas football game in September. She said the man was Shannon after identifying him from a team roster, documents showed.

Shannon’s lawyer, Mark P. Sutter, said in a statement that Shannon was innocent and intended to take his case to trial.

On Dec. 28, Shannon traveled to Lawrence, Kan., turned himself into authorities, posted bail and returned to campus, the school said in a statement. Illinois suspended him from all team activities.

“In moments like this, we have to understand that basketball must take a back seat,” Whitman said at the time. “We have an obligation here as a university to take allegations such as these incredibly seriously.”

Shannon sued the school, again claiming his innocence and saying a suspension would cause irreparable harm. “My life as I know it will be ruined,” he wrote in a letter to the Illinois student conduct panel. He filed a temporary restraining order against the suspension, which Judge Colleen Lawless granted in late January.

“Given that Plaintiff’s projected draft position fell 17 spots into the second round one week after he was suspended, his continued suspension almost certainly means Plaintiff’s draft position will continue to plummet and increases the likelihood he will not be selected in the June 2024 draft,” Lawless wrote in her ruling.

Illinois immediately reinstated Shannon.

Despite the swirl around him, Shannon has played some of the best basketball in school history. Shannon scored 40 points in the Big Ten tournament semifinals and 34 in the finals. He has scored 26, 30 and 29 points in Illinois’ three NCAA tournament wins. As he walked off the TD Garden floor Thursday night, he held up three fingers — the number of victories Illinois needs to win the championship.

“It’s kind of crazy to see,” teammate Coleman Hawkins said. “I’m not saying he’s innocent or I’m saying he’s guilty. But it’s crazy to see the mental focus that you have to have to go out and do it through whatever has gone on.”

For star players, speaking with reporters in the locker room and behind a dais are part of the NCAA tournament rhythm. Underwood said he saw no issue with Shannon’s absence.

“That’s obviously a very serious situation,” Underwood said. “We’re very well aware of that. I think there’s communication that he has to have with his legal counsel and so on and so forth to be aware of what’s in his best interest and moving forward. We’re going to adhere to that. The university has put out their statements on those situations, and we’re going to adhere to all that, and we’re going to play basketball and do it to the best of our ability and keep trying to win games.”

Underwood has maintained the same message since Shannon’s legal situation arose: He will coach the players available to him and allow the school and the courts to sort out the rest.

“I’ve said many times I’m a college basketball coach,” Underwood said. “When we found out, it was our athletic director, Josh Whitman, that informed me. Then it was to a decision that was made by the university and then obviously taken to the courts, and I’ve said all along I was going to coach the guys I had in the locker room. I was going to be the best supporter of those guys that I coach every day. We had to find a way to flourish through those tough times. Then when he came back and joined us, he was a part of our team again. He has always been a great teammate. We got him back, and here we sit today.”

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