With four or five potential pros on its roster and perhaps a couple of future NBA All-Stars, No. 22 Illinois was expected to challenge for the Big Ten Conference title back in November and potentially make a deep NCAA Tournament run.
The Fighting Illini might still meet all of those lofty expectations, but they should probably consider playing with more urgency and toughness, beginning with Tuesday night’s visit from conference rival Penn State.
After sitting on an upset loss to Maryland for six days before Saturday’s late morning tip-off with No. 21 Ohio State, Illinois promptly fell behind 10-2 and 37-19 in the first half of an eventual 87-81 defeat in Champaign.
The loss dropped coach Brad Underwood’s team to 9-5 overall and 5-3 in the conference, and after the game, he sounded like a man who has seen enough.
“I’m getting really frustrated with really poor, lack of emotion, non-competitive starts,” he said to the Champaign News-Gazette.
“You can’t come out of a locker room and can’t come out of a pregame huddle and be down 10-2.
“You can’t have guys not show up and not be assignment-sound and not be dialed in mentally. Right now we have that. We’ve got to put five guys on the floor who will be competitive, not just ride the emotional waves of good or bad. Just play.”
Illinois waited too long to play against a solid team that looked more connected on both ends of the floor. It chopped the deficit to four several times in the final minute, but just didn’t come up with key stops.
The Illini wasted another 22-point effort from Ayo Dosunmu, as well as 15 points and 11 rebounds from Kofi Cockburn. The duo teams up to score nearly 40 points per game, or nearly half of the team’s 83.1 ppg.
Meanwhile, Penn State (3-5, 0-4) got back on the floor Sunday for its first game since Dec. 30, falling 80-72 at Purdue. The Nittany Lions were predictably rusty in the first half, scoring just nine points in the first 10 minutes.
They rallied to take a lead later in the half and trailed only 33-32 at intermission, but the Boilermakers started the second half with an 18-5 spurt that was simply too much for Penn State to overcome.
“For all of us, it felt great to be back on the court and playing for each other,” Nittany Lions interim coach Jim Ferry said. “We just have to keep grinding and keep getting better.”
Myreon Jones led Penn State with a career-high 23 points, while senior John Harrar enjoyed the best game of his career with 14 points and 14 rebounds. Harrar grabbed an incredible 10 offensive rebounds.
Jones leads four Nittany Lions in double figures with 15.4 ppg. Their modest record aside, Penn State owns one of the better road wins of the season with a 75-55 rout at No. 20 Virginia Tech, which is contending for the Atlantic Coast Conference lead.
Illinois is aiming for a season sweep of the Nittany Lions after bagging a 98-81 decision on Dec. 23 behind 30 points from Dosunmu.
–Field Level Media