TUCSON, Ariz. — The opening week of the season was revealing for Illinois men’s basketball.
The Illini faced a Nicholls State team that put a scare in them in the season opener where overtime was needed to finish off the Colonels. That same team went on to win at Pittsburgh four days later to prove it wasn’t a fluke. Then came a raucous road environment and another gritty win for the Illini at Grand Canyon.
Sunday’s showdown at No. 21 Arizona capped Illinois’ opening week. On paper, the Illini’s toughest challenge of the six days of the season. On the court, too.
Illinois didn’t help itself either with a stagnant offense bogged down by a slew of turnovers and a defense that was affected by missteps at the other end. Not totally dissimilar to the first two games of the season, but the Wildcats simply made the Illini pay a bit more in their 90-69 victory in front of a McKale Memorial Center crowd of 13,780.
“I thought the first half was an extremely high level basketball game,” Illinois coach Brad Underwood said. “Then it was a 53-52 game, and that same bugaboo just keeps rearing it’s ugly head and that’s turnovers. … We’ve got to clean that up. It doesn’t matter what offense we run. We’re finding ways to turn the ball over. They don’t pressure. They let you run your stuff, and it’s just a frustrating trend.
“c We get eight days to practice now. Very, very busy first week. Now we have a lot of film to learn from. … I like this team. I like what we’re capable of. We’re not going to let one game on the road at Arizona define our season.”
The first week of the season, though, served its purpose. Illinois won’t be back in action until Nov. 18 against Hawaii. It’s the first of five straight games at home before the Illini’s early December Big Ten opener on Dec. 7 at Maryland. Playing Grand Canyon and Arizona on the road the opening week was with the Terps in mind.
“Busy,” Underwood said to describe the last six days. “Tiring, to be honest. It was a lot of travel. Not many high major programs go do that, but I also think it’s extremely beneficial. We know now, before we go to Maryland, exactly what we’ve got to do. We’ve seen elite high major size and elite high major teams.
“We’ve been on the road in a great environment at Grand Canyon. We saw a Nicholls team that made a run at us. It’s a lot of growth, and we’ve got eight days to do that. We set it up for that purpose.”
Illinois didn’t set things up to turn the ball over 22 times against Arizona. Trailing by just a single point at halftime Sunday, the Illini committed three turnovers in their first four possessions of the second half. They didn’t stop either, as the Wildcats went on a 15-0 run starting with about 12 minutes to play that ultimately closed the door on Illinois.
“Twenty-two turnovers is unacceptable for us with three guards on the court — especially three of the best guards, backcourt, in the country,” junior guard Trent Frazier said.
“You cannot win on the road having 22 turnovers,” senior guard Andres Feliz added matter of factly.
Those struggles aside, doubt isn’t creeping in for the Illini. There’s still firm belief in what they’ve accomplished so far this season and what they can accomplish as the season progresses.
“It’s early, man,” said Frazier, who had 14 points against Arizona. “We’re 2-1, and it’s a great learning experience for this team. All we can do right now is learn from this game, watch our mistakes and just get prepared for the next game.
“I love this team. This is probably the best team we’ve had in a while. (Sunday) was a great learning experience. We’ve got to get other guys going and other guys ready with the scouting report and executing on offense and being ready to play in big-time games like this. We’ve got a week off. Right now our main focus is to get ready for Hawaii and get better.”
Ayo Dosunmu was the picture of quiet confidence even after Sunday’s loss. The sophomore guard led Illinois with 15 points, and he remains certain in what this particular Illini team is capable of doing on the court. A 21-point loss to Arizona was just one game.
“We’ll be good,” Dosunmu said. “We let the game get away making stupid mistakes. That’s something we can control. That’s nothing major.”
Underwood has some concerns, though. Mostly with the turnovers. The 22 on Sunday at Arizona made for 62 in three games this season. Last year’s Illini weren’t exactly the paragon of ball security, but averaging more than 20 turnovers per game now puts Illinois among the worst teams in the country in that regard.
“I’m concerned about the fact we’re a better team than that,” Underwood said. “That’s not something we should be doing. We’ve got to see how they’re coming. I bet we had a half dozen to 10 just on post entries. We had one that’s really casual on an inbounds play. Those are plays that are mental toughness plays and understanding the environment and the game. If we’re lapsing, then we’ve got to get them not to.
“I thought for 30 of the 40 minutes we were pretty good. It’s that other 10 we’ve got to get through, and now we’ve got a lot of film and now it’s get better time.”