Game story: Illini can't sustain strong start

Game story: Illini can't sustain strong start

ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Brad Underwood contemplated a couple lineup changes heading into Saturday’s game at Michigan. Only one was ultimately made — inserting Trent Frazier to run the point in his first career start. 

The desired result was achieved. Illinois was strong early, avoiding the type of slow start that has plagued the team at multiple times this season.

A near capacity crowd at Crisler Center was perhaps stunned into silence. The Illinois team that opened up an early lead on Michigan wasn’t the same one that missed 19 of its first 20 shots three days prior at Minnesota.

But that strong start turned out be unsustainable.

Illinois was hit by those old familiar struggles after halftime instead. Turnovers became Michigan layups at the other end, and the Wolverines rallied from down three at halftime for a 79-69 victory to keep the Illini (10-7) winless in Big Ten play at 0-4.

In such lies Illinois’ root issue. It’s not necessarily a personnel problem in terms of who’s on the court when. The 10 Illini who saw the court Saturday afternoon all played at least 16 minutes. 

Illinois’ struggles lie elsewhere.

“We talked about it because we got (20) down at Minnesota the other night, and I’m tired of watching it, to be honest,” Underwood said. “It’s a focus issue. … It’s what’s earmarking our team right now is a real lack of consistency.

“The second half was all them. We opened the half with two unforced turnovers. We’ve got to grow up. We put our head down, quit fighting and let what happens on the offensive end affect us.”

A halftime lead — particularly against higher level competition — has been a rarity for Illinois this season. It happened because the Illini, perhaps sparked by that one starting lineup change, played with an early energy rarely seen the past couple months.

“We just have to continue to work on building on our leads and stop letting our leads slip,” freshman forward Greg Eboigbodin said. “The energy was really low in the second half. We had those two turnovers in 30 (seconds). We’ve been playing pretty well, but our finishes have been bad.”

That full 40 minute effort is something Illinois remains in search of, and not regularly having it has been a source of some frustration. 

“It’s always frustrating when you know how good you can be and you’re not living up to your full potential,” redshirt sophomore forward Kipper Nichols said. “I think we’re turning this corner. Bottom line it’s about sustaining effort for two halves. … We’re going to draw from this. Back to the lab. We’re going to come out the next game firing on all cylinders.”

Last January saw Underwood make a fairly dramatic change at Oklahoma State with a 180-degree shift in defensive styles. He doesn’t see anything similar as necessary for the Illini — particularly on the defensive end.

Defense has been Illinois’ strongest suit. Again, the Illini’s struggles lie elsewhere.

“We took (Michigan) out of everything (in the first half),” Underwood said. “Sustaining that for 40 minutes we’ve got to get figured out. A completely different set of issues last year with what we have right now.

“For a guy that just got annihilated in the second half, I’ve been pretty pleased with the way we’ve been guarding and been doing some things. Offensively, we have to start making some shots. You’re not going to win in college basketball if you’re not making shots.”

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Bwp 5P wrote on January 06, 2018 at 4:01 pm

WOW.......No Moonpie blather and hate yet!!!

I agree........if they hit some of the threes, and blown lay-ups, they will be more competetive!

11 combined points from the two "Big Men"............won't win us many games.........unless they shoot lights out from the arc!!

BruckJr wrote on January 06, 2018 at 8:01 pm

March 1, 2017.  The last time that either an Illini basketball or football team won a Big Ten game.  Ten months and counting.