Asmussen | Solid win could start beginning of Illini turnaround

Asmussen | Solid win could start beginning of Illini turnaround

Ten games down. Four games under .500.

Not the way Illinois wanted to start the basketball season.

But the Illini got to smile after Saturday's game against UNLV. Thanks to stellar performances by subs Andres Feliz and Samba Kane, they held on for close win against UNLV.

Not the Runnin' Rebels of my youth. Jerry Tarkanian has passed away and nobody on the current team has the talent of former greats Larry Johnson, Sidney Green or Reggie Theus.

Still, it's a name. A solid win for an Illinois team that had just two of them going in.

"We got that thing in the left-hand column," Illinois coach Brad Underwood said. "We haven't been in that situation, having a lead and having to protect it."

And now, they can rest. The Illini play just three games in the next three weeks: next Saturday at home against East Tennessee State, Dec. 22 against Missouri in St. Louis and Dec. 29 at home against Florida Atlantic.

It's a stretch the Illini have been looking forward to.

What is Kipper Nichols going to do?

"Get some sleep," he said. "Our preparation is the same every day. Coach isn't going to take it an easier on us."

Nichols has that right. His coach has a plan.

"Add a lot," Underwood said. "Work on late-game situations.

"We played zone the last four possessions of the game. We haven't spent a whole lot of time working in late-game situations and coverages."

Practice doesn't make perfect. But it makes you better.

"You've got to work on the side out-of-bounds full court," Underwood said.

The coach is thrilled to have some extra time.

"We've been in a lot of game preparation," Underwood said. "We try to sprinkle in one thing a day. Now we can really start to add some things. We're getting a little blah. We've got to add some variety.

"We'll get back to the basic fundamentals and actually practice and really work on cleaning blockouts out and some of those things."

The long road back ...

To .500. Sounds like an unreal notion for the Illini. But it is possible.

The most difficult part of a crazy-hard schedule is over. During trips to Maui, South Bend, Lincoln and Chicago, the Illini went 0-6. Nobody was surprised.

Next up, the Buccaneers, who are 8-3 after Saturday's victory against Tennessee-Martin. Coached by Steve Forbes, ETSU is playing well. It lost a close game at Creighton.

But Illinois will handle the Bucs.

Another week, then Missouri, which is 6-3.

Nothing makes you feel better than beating your rival. Especially this one, which has former Illini Mark Smith on the roster. Plus almost-Illini Javon Pickett and Jeremiah Tilmon. Should be fun.

The Tigers are all out of Porters, which helps Illinois. Cuonzo Martin remains in charge in Columbia and he wants to end the five-game streak by the Illini. Maybe next year.

In front of a full house at whatever they call the big building in downtown St. Louis (it's actually now the Enterprise Center), Illinois makes it six in a row.

That would get move Underwood's team to 5-7. Closer.

It will go to 6-7 a week later when the Illini host Florida Atlantic at the State Farm Center.

That's it for the weird nonconference part of the schedule, which included Big Ten losses to Nebraska and Ohio State. Oh well.

Challenges ahead

I'm reading a lot into what happened Saturday. The win showed a level of determination not seen for most of the season.

The guess here is that Underwood will take great advantage of this upcoming stretch and turn his team. Maybe not into an instant winner, which will come in future years.

But the Illini will be more competitive.

When the calendar flips to 2019, the Illini dive right back in with road games against Indiana and Northwestern and a home game against powerhouse Michigan.

To sniff .500 before March, the Illini need to take care of their home games and pull an upset or two on the road. Maybe at Iowa, Minnesota or Wisconsin.

Maybe even win at Ohio State. Wonder if the Buckeyes might be willing to return the favor and play the game in Cleveland or Cincinnati? Probably not.

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

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