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Illinois Rebuild Reaches Early Crossroads

Vegas Trip Looms Large As Illini Look to Pick Up First Quality Win

NCAA Basketball: Maryland at Illinois Mike Granse-USA TODAY Sports

Here we go again.

That though pulsated through much of Illini nation after an 0-3 week that saw Illinois variously waste a fast start on the road against Wake Forest, fail to find the bucket down the stretch against Northwestern and choke away a late lead against Maryland. There are endless excuses, moral victories, “little things done right” to digest in such a week, but a close call at home against Austin Peay makes it fair to wonder if an early losing streak has sapped needed confidence from a young team.

This week, it appeared that not even the force of low expectations could blunt the effect of three tough losses. After their win against Austin Peay, Illinois Coach Brad Underwood compared the pregame locker room to “a morgue,” and the Illini followed that by playing like they were at a funeral. Their defense was superficially solid, with 24 turnovers against, but benefited largely from poor shooting by Peay and a number of close charge calls.

Illinois’ first half offense looked like your standard zombie film: one or two guys running around aimlessly, the rest engaged in sort of limping jog. Ok, that’s a little harsh. But Illinois did not appear to properly attack the aggressive defense of Austin Peay, who are among the nation’s most aggressive. The Illini coughed it up a remarkable 25 times. Starting Point Guard Te’Jon Lucas was responsible for five of those, though his teammates played a role with their inability to set screens and flash open against a scheme that overplayed beyond the three-point line.

A lack of execution was at the root of Illinois’ three losses. Against Austin Peay, it was a lack of energy. Reading the tea leaves from Underwood’s press conferences, it is clear he is still searching for a leader on the roster he inherited. Though he consistently heaps praise on Aaron Jordan for leading by example on the court and in preparation, he has yet to give the junior a start. Graduate transfer Mark Alstork and redshirt junior Michael Finke have been inconsistent. Leron Black has achieved a high level of production, but is still growing into the kind of vocal leader that Underwood seeks. Will any of the veterans step up? Can that role be filled by one of Illinois’ talented, but youthful, guards? Despite a poor statistical showing Wednesday, I wouldn’t bet against Aaron Jordan stepping up (and stepping into the starting lineup) as the vocal leader Underwood so desperately seeks.

So for the diehards who stay up into the early hours of Sunday morning to watch the Illini take on UNLV, see if Brad Underwood once against shuffles his starting lineup. After tip, listen closely for a louder cadence of offensive calls and defensive yelps. Illinois will need to slow down Brandon McCoy and find consistency on offense if they want to leave Vegas with their first quality victory of the season. 40 minutes of passion will be a prerequisite to that success.

A young team can be forgiven for a low-energy performance on a Wednesday night in early December. A similar showing will have the Illini thinking “here we go again” all the way back from Vegas. That’s something Brad Underwood can’t abide, and that’s why Saturday night’s game will tell us a lot about where this team is headed.