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CHAMPAIGN — Brad Underwood saw his team at a tipping point this week in Kansas City, Mo.

A Hall of Fame Classic loss to Cincinnati on Monday — and not just a loss, a blowout — was a second straight after losing a week earlier at Marquette.

Underwood didn’t know where his team’s fight was.

The loss to Cincinnati featured exactly zero of it during the final 32 minutes of the game, as the Bearcats eventually turned a 15-point deficit into a 20-point upset victory.

The Illini had been challenged, which is exactly Underwood’s goal early in the season no matter if his team is unranked or considered among the top 25 in the country.

How they responded would tell him something about his team.

So Kofi Cockburn waving to the crowd to generate some noise Tuesday night against Kansas State was a good sign. So were a dozen made three-pointers after just two fell the night prior against Cincinnati. The vibe was simply better. The result, too, with a 72-64 Illinois victory.

“Those are the little things I take away,” Underwood said Wednesday as his team was preparing to face UT Rio Grande Valley (4-2) at 7 p.m. Friday at State Farm Center. “I know it’s a long season. We’ve got a long way to go and a lot of league games left.

“If we keep playing defense — we’re (fourth) in the country (in defensive efficiency rating) and we’re (fifth) in rebounding. If we keep doing those things, we’re going to give ourselves a chance until it all kind of clicks and falls together. It will do that.”

That this Illinois team is a work in progress early in the season doesn’t make it unique. Last year’s team that won the Big Ten tournament, finished second in the final Associated Press Top 25 poll of the season and earned a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament started the year 9-5 before winning 11 of 12 games to finish the regular season.

The 2019-20 season was similar. Illinois again started 9-5 and then won 12 of its last 17 games. Underwood had the same type of scenario in his one year at Oklahoma State with a 10-8 record in mid-January before winning 10 of 13 to end the regular season. His last Stephen F. Austin team was 7-5 at the end of December and then went 21-1 through a second round exit in the NCAA tournament.

“My teams usually don’t play very well early,” Underwood said. “I don’t mean that in a bad way. It might be on me. Injuries are obviously a piece of the circumstance this year, but we’re trying to figure things out and trying to get it right. I do that choosing to play a really hard schedule and challenging games. I still thank that’s how you learn who you are.”

Underwood hit on the necessity to schedule like he does multiple times this week. Illinois’ trip to Kansas City for the Hall of Fame Classic was part of a 10-game stretch, where the Illini will play eight high-major opponents.

Still to come are Notre Dame in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge, Rutgers and Iowa in two early December Big Ten games followed by Arizona and Missouri.

“I like finding out who we are,” Underwood said. “I could play a bunch of home games and play the Joey Biggs Invitational and not go to a tournament and just get a bunch of buy games here and win and feel good about ourselves.

“I’d much rather get punched in the mouth, find out who we are and be able to deal with it and move forward in that fashion than just take a cupcake city attitude and say we’re going to win a bunch of games, but all of a sudden we get in league play and or on the road and don’t have any idea how to handle it.”

Complicating Illinois’ start to the season has been an ever-shifting pool of available players.

Cockburn missed the first three games of the season serving his NCAA-mandated suspension. Austin Hutcherson was on the bench next to him those same three games after bruising his tailbone in practice. Trent Frazier (right shoulder) and Andre Curbelo (concussion) both missed the season opener against Jackson State, and now Frazier (left leg) is on crutches with a still to be determined status. Throw in a pair of missed games in Kansas City for Luke Goode with back spasms, and the Illini haven’t had their entire team available for any game yet this season.

It’s left Illinois unsettled. Working through that situation now, however, is preferable in Underwood’s opinion.

“The thing it does is gives us time,” Underwood said. “When you start dealing with stuff in conference play, things can spiral pretty quickly. This one gives us some time to work through it. Gives guys an opportunity to potentially recover and come back and find some chemistry. Chemistry and that connectivity is something that can be gathered pretty quick.

“I thought we gained on that (Tuesday) night. (Tuesday) night, I felt, was the first night where I could coach and put guys in position to score baskets. Put (Alfonso) Plummer in situations to continue to get him shots. To run actions to get Kofi the ball. It was nice to finally be able to feel like I was impacting the game from coaching and not just having a mosh pit of trying to get through it.”

Scott Richey is a reporter covering college basketball at The News-Gazette. His email is srichey@news-gazette.com, and you can follow him on Twitter (@srrichey).

College/Prep Sports Reporter

Scott Richey is a reporter covering college basketball at The News-Gazette. His email is srichey@news-gazette.com, and you can follow him on Twitter (@srrichey).

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