Tate: Let's just wait and see

Tate: Let's just wait and see

Before sealing a judgment, it's best to invade multiple sources ... or in this case, evaluate multiple basketball performances.

Some 48 hours earlier, this weekly message would have been entirely different, being then based on hearsay from the UI's secret home loss to Indiana State (the Sycamores aren't so bad, are they!) and what my eyes took in at Eastern Illinois and in a half-dozen practices.

"The exhibition loss at Eastern (80-67) was humbling but we needed it in order to get that feel, to prepare us for our opener," Illinois coach Brad Underwood said.

Comparing Friday's 102-55 Illini romp over Southern with my previous impressions was as Dr. Jekyll is to Mr. Hyde, and white is to black.

When did Te'Jon Lucas become a maestro at the point? When did Mark Alstork show signs of producing a double-double (17 points, 10 rebounds)? Certainly not in recent workouts. And who could have predicted 10th man Aaron Jordan would break out with 17 points.

The overmatched Jaguars from Baton Rouge, representing an athletic program entering the second year of a massive five-year NCAA probation, were not competitive. But who could imagine Illinois racking 102 points while shooting a dismal 4 for 19 from the arc?

Building them up to break them down

They won't all be this easy. We can certainly expect DePaul to fire both barrels next Friday, if not Tennessee-Martin here today (5 p.m).

"When adversity sets in, that's the challenge," said Underwood, anticipating bumps in a pavement that looked so smooth Friday night.

You see, the new coach is just beginning to implement his blue-collar brand of basketball. His job, essentially, is to prod young athletes into mastering fundamentals that would seldom intrude on their jump-shooting mindsets.

Nobody, remember, spends personal hours in the gym to work on a defensive stance, to cut off passing lanes or, offensively, to emphasize spacing, ball reversals and aggressive cuts off a high post.

So Underwood is in the business of teaching a game with which his players are not altogether familiar.

It's the age-old coaching technique of breaking them down before building them up. Not being a magician, Underwood can't accomplish this by flicking a wand. It is a grind for everybody involved, and the results could mimic last season when his high-scoring Oklahoma State team (85.7 ppg) started 0-6 in the Big 12 before making a 10 for 11 run.

A lesson in patience

Illini supporters may yet be called on for more patience. That's getting old. But that's where we are.

Four of last year's top five scorers are gone: Malcolm Hill, Tracy Abrams, Maverick Morgan and Jalen Coleman-Lands ... plus Jaylon Tate who, of necessity, started 35 games during his career.

The 2015-16 class, which should be producing at this point, finds only Jordan representing an original group that included Coleman-Lands, D.J. Williams and departed transfers Mike Thorne and Alex Austin.

John Groce used stop-gap moves with transfers to fill recruiting shortfalls, which proved beneficial in some cases and not in others.

Most memorable was the failed attempt by Western Michigan's Darius Paul to follow brother Brandon Paul here, only to be sidetracked by his arrest for underage drinking here and his later arrest in France for vandalism and public intoxication.

This year's transfer, Alstork, is the only senior on the team. He attended Ball State and Wright State, averaging 19 points last season for Scott Nagy. He shot just 40 percent and committed 136 turnovers against 112 assists while enjoying outbreaks of 39 points against Toledo, 33 against Youngstown State and 30 at SIU. As of Friday, Alstork made us forget comparisons with the past failures of highly-touted UI transfers like Alex Legion and Aaron Cosby. Underwood lauded Alstork's defense as part of his offensive performance.

Tough sledding ahead in Big Ten play

This is an Illini team picked low in the Big Ten preseason polls. Unlikely squads at Northwestern and Minnesota are in the Top 25, and the generally-overlooked operations at Iowa and Penn State are maturing.

It'll be tough sledding with five of the first seven Big Ten games on the road, beginning in less than three weeks with a trip to Rosemont to face Northwestern.

"We're looking for leadership," Underwood said last week. "If I have to lead, we're not going to be very good."

Redshirt juniors Leron Black and Mike Finke are striving to answer that call. It doesn't come naturally. But the way the team played Friday night, there's a swagger that wasn't present Monday when the walk-ons gave the regulars fits in a scrimmage, and on Wednesday when Underwood unhappily left the practice court.

By Thursday's session, he was building them up for the opener, and the Illini streaked ahead 25-7 with two full units sharing time. It was impressive. Now we'll see if we get a repeat, or a different version tonight.

Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at ltate@news-gazette.com


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