CHAMPAIGN — Early Big Ten play has done Illinois men’s basketball no favors the past two seasons.
Brad Underwood’s first year as coach saw the Illini drop their first eight conference games before finally getting that first win in late January.
Last season wasn’t much better. An 0-5 start in the Big Ten gave way to another bottom-four-of-the-conference finish.
That made Saturday’s 54-51 victory against Rutgers in front of an announced State Farm Center crowd of 11,070 rather momentous. The three-point victory, after all, pushed Illinois (12-5, 4-2 Big Ten) into sole possession of second place in the conference behind league-leading Michigan State.
“It’s a great feeling knowing the hard work is paying off,” Illinois sophomore guard Ayo Dosunmu said. “But we’re not satisfied. At the beginning of the season, we knew what we were capable of, and we still know what we’re capable of. We want more. We want to keep striving to get better and better and be the best team in the league.
“We’ve got a bye week this week — no game this week — so a lot of time to get better. A lot of time to clean up some of the things we didn’t necessarily do right and things that can help us be the best team we can be.”
What Illinois didn’t necessarily do right Saturday against Rutgers (12-4, 3-2) is mostly limited to the offensive end. The Illini ultimately shot 28.6 percent from the field, but that took a herculean effort down the stretch after shooting 19.4 percent in the first half and missing all seven of their three-point attempts. So it might behoove Illinois to use the next six days before it hosts Northwestern on Jan. 18 to work out some offensive kinks.
Defensively? The Illini can’t really complain. They held Rutgers to 33.9 percent shooting overall from the field and did so without fouling given the Scarlet Knights attempted just eight free throws.
“We put a big box on the court around the lane,” Underwood said. “We worked all the last two days on trying to keep them out of the box. It’s guys paying attention to the scouting report. Guys taking pride in it. When you shoot 29 percent, you better find a way to win. That’s why I was ecstatic in the locker room. I was a really happy basketball coach (Saturday) that we could find a way to win a game like that.”
Underwood had some concerns about how his team might play against Rutgers following Wednesday’s win at Wisconsin. Beating the Badgers snapped a 15-game losing streak to the Illini’s northern conference rival. Emotions were running high — particularly since Illinois pulled off that road victory in comeback fashion.
“You worry about the next step, and that’s growing through those things and getting yourself back up to that level again,” Underwood said. “I’m happy with the growth of our program when you shoot 29 percent and win. They’re not all going to be pretty. It’s a compliment to our players and our coaching staff the job we’re doing defensively.
“Understand an ugly win is much better than a pretty loss when you look at the stat sheets. It’s why we play this is to figure out ways to win. We’ve been striving and striving and striving to win games when the ball doesn’t go in. You have to figure out how to do that.”
Illinois again put the ball in Dosunmu’s hands to close out another comeback victory. The 6-foot-5 sophomore guard scored the Illini’s final eight points and finished with a game-high 18.
“He’s terrific,” Rutgers coach Steve Pikiell said of Dosunmu. “He’s an elite athlete. Going right, he’s a hard guy to stop, and he can make big shots for them.”
The Scarlet Knights didn’t make enough big shots of their own. Redshirt junior guard Jacob Young hit four three-pointers and led Rutgers with 16 points, but the misses — especially from three-point range — piled up for the Scarlet Knights just as quickly as they did for the Illini.
“I like to drive it,” Pikiell said. “I like to get to the free-throw line. I didn’t like our rebounding. We needed to be plus on them. I didn’t like a lot of things. You’ve got to play better basketball on the road against a really good team — a well-coached team. ... You’ve got to play better on the road to win in this league.”
The Illini successfully defending their home court for the third time in Big Ten play — and second in less than a week — has them at least in charge of their own destiny in conference play with 14 games left before the Big Ten tournament.
“That’s exactly why it means nothing,” Underwood said about his team currently sitting in second in the conference standings. “We’ve got two-thirds of the season left. We’ve got 14 games. The next one that’s on our schedule is going to be just as hard as this one.
“I guess maybe you could say we haven’t dug a hole starting 0-2 in December. We’ve given ourselves a fighting chance, but I don’t look at standings. It’s the next game. It’s the next practice. You guys are going to hear me say that a bunch. There’s no other way to look at it. We’re only as good as our next game and our next practice. We’re fighting and we’re doing the right things. At the end, they’ll tally them all up, and we’ll see where we’re at.”