Asmussen | Big test on tap for young Illini

Asmussen | Big test on tap for young Illini

Are you ready for some basketball?

Brad Underwood's second Illinois team better be.

Georgetown, a team rated in the lower half of the Big East, just came to Champaign-Urbana and took out the Illini.

The Hoyas are a nice team with loads of potential.

Patrick Ewing is trying to rebuild his alma mater into what it once was: a dominant Eastern power.

It seems like just yesterday Ewing swatted away shots in the NCAA title game. But that was almost 37 years ago. (Gosh, I am old).

But those were not your parents' Hoyas. This time, it was a team Illinois should have beat at State Farm Center. Even with star Trent Frazier sidelined by concussion protocol.

And now, the basketball turns serious.

In four days, the Illini open in the NBA-level Maui Invitational against third-ranked Gonzaga.

A trip to paradise? Hardly. While the players, coaches and fans figure to get plenty of sun, there will be 10 hours each day of basketball bedlam.

Every team at Maui can play. Past national champions and likely future national champs are represented.

The nation's No. 1 team, Duke, will be there. Fortunately for Illinois, Coach K's guys are in the other bracket and likely headed to the title game.

If Illinois wins the first two games and gets to meet the Blue Devils, consider it mission accomplished.

More likely, Underwood and his staff will spend their rare free time breaking down tape of another talented team.

Grudge matches

The second-round opponent will be either Arizona or Iowa State. The Wildcats are a longtime Illinois nemesis. Just ask the players from Bill Self's first team, which lost to Arizona in the regional final. Wait, listen, I think there was just another foul called against Robert Archibald and friends.

Deron Williams and Dee Brown don't have quite the same antagonistic feeling toward the Wildcats, who they stunned in the 2005 regional final.

The potential matchup with Iowa State could be a lot of fun. History lingers there, too.

Cyclones freshman guard Talen Horton-Tucker was a one-time Illinois target. Ultimately, the Illini opted to stop recruiting him despite his interest. Horton-Tucker wanted to play in C-U.

He will relish the chance to play against the school that spurned him.

Horton-Tucker was so-so in his first two games this season, but scored 26 points and hit five three-pointers in Monday's win against Texas Southern.

Iowa State is off to a good start, winning its first three, including an easy victory against Missouri.

No fear

The question was put to Underwood: After the close loss to Georgetown, is the Maui Invitational a good thing?

"We don't have any choice," Underwood said.

Good point. It's on the schedule.

Travel arrangements have bene made. The Illini are flying to Maui.

Underwood sees it as an opportunity. His young team has a chance to shock the college basketball world. And with all the stuff happening off the court in recent years, that's hard to do.

"I'm excited," Underwood said. "It's the elite event in all of preseason basketball."

He likes the team he is taking to the islands.

"You think I'm afraid to challenge anybody with this group, the way this group is going to develop and continue to grow?" Underwood said. "I'm excited. Every night, the rest of the way for us is like this: Real dudes. Guys that are really good players and guys that are well coached and make plays. Man, we've just got to keep growing."

The Illini learned plenty of lessons against Georgetown. Like the importance of blocking out. And doing the other little things that separate good teams from the mediocre.

"We've got to be better," Underwood said. "We're not going to back down from anybody. We're going to throw it up and keep going."

The Illini don't need to come home with the big trophy to show they are improving. Even a win or two in Maui will be a bonus. What the team needs more than anything else is 120 competitive minutes.

Do that and the big crowd that showed up Tuesday night will be back again at State Farm Center this season.

Bob Asmussen can be reached at 217-351-5233 or by email at asmussen@news-gazette.com.

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