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Same Story, Different Night for Illini in Loss to Minnesota

Losses Piling in Champaign as Tournament Hopes Dwindle

NCAA Basketball: Illinois at Minnesota Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

On Wednesday night, Illinois once again nearly lost a game within the first 10 minutes, only to claw their way back in the second half before finally succumbing to a superior team. It’s becoming a familiar script for Brad Underwood’s squad, and if intensity continues to wane at the beginning of games, his team could once again find themselves 0-6 in conference (or worse).

In his first and only season at Oklahoma State last year, Underwood took the Cowboys from 0-6 in the Big 12 to the NCAA Tournament. With that possibility off the table for these Illini (pending a miraculous run that would dwarf even OSU’s from last year), can Underwood find the right buttons to push to avoid a losing season?

The obvious one, and the one fans have been clamoring for for over a month, is a lineup change. Underwood has kept guards Te’Jon Lucas and Mark Smith in the starting lineup even as they have hemorrhaged most of their meaningful minutes to Trent Frazier and Da’Monte Williams.

Frazier, in particular, has become a go-to-guy for the Illini down the stretch, as his ability to create shots is in short supply on Illinois’ offensively challenged roster. Underwood hinted at a lineup change Wednesday when he sent Frazier and Williams out to start the second half.

Unfortunately, it’s not just a lack of energy, but rather basic basketball ineffectiveness that has dogged many Illini players of late. Aaron Jordan did his best Tracy Abrams impression in Minneapolis, laying bricks from deep after leading the nation in three point percentage early in the year.

Jordan has turned into a knock-down shooter from the corners, but will need to add another dimension to his offensive repertoire to hang in Illinois’ lineup. Michael Finke appears extremely passive at times, and that was certainly the case against the Gophers, as Jordan Murphy and Reggie Lynch thoroughly dominated the paint all night against Finke and his frontcourt running mate Leron Black.

In the case of Kipper Nichols, the problem appears to be both effort and ineffectiveness. Nichols, who posted solid numbers while flashing huge potential in an abbreviated freshman year in 2017, has been nearly invisible over Illinois’ last few games. Nichols’ minutes have dwindled so much that it is fair to speculate how well he and Underwood are getting along (indeed, there have been hints since the preseason that Nichols and the Illini’s new coach were not seeing eye-to-eye). Given the team’s need for size, Nichol’s on-court disappearing act is unfortunate for all parties.

Illinois will likely finish towards the bottom of the Big Ten this year. Their offense, rated 154th in adjusted efficiency by KenPom, is at least a year away from allowing Illinois to compete. Progression towards their shooting means and further cohesion within a new system will likely allow the Illini to steal a couple games in which they are underdogs; by the same token, they are vulnerable on any given night.

Led by a bevy of talented young guards, there’s ample reason to believe the Illini will be solid next year and great in years to come. Each loss, however, reminds fans that they need to curb their enthusiasm for an immediate turnaround.