The Daily Illini

Relentless Spartan offense too much for young Illini: Post-game reaction column

By Thomas Polcyn, Illini hoops columnist

Realistically, not many (if any) people would have predicted an Illini win on Monday night in Champaign, and unfortunately, those people would be correct, but hey, they almost covered.

Despite a strong first half in which the Illini defense forced 15 turnovers, Michigan State was on fire from the field, proving to be more than enough to propel them to victory and extend Illinois’ Big Ten drought.

This should come as no surprise, considering the Spartans are currently ranked as the No. 6 team in the country. Miles Bridges is a future lottery pick. Jaren Jackson Jr. is a guaranteed first rounder (probably a lottery pick, too). Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo continues to show why his program is a top-10 team year in and year out, and that’s okay.

What’s more important is to look at what Illinois did in the game, as opposed to being blinded by the fact that they fell to a far superior Michigan State team. So, let’s check out what the most important takeaways from Monday’s matchup with the Spartans.

Growing pains continue to hurt

Nobody expected this team to make a ton of noise this year, but nobody would have thought Illinois would be winless in the Big Ten after January 22. But, that’s where we are, and here’s why.

The young core that has shined at moments this season is exactly that; a young core. Sure, Trent Frazier has been phenomenal, Mark Smith and Da’Monte Williams have had their games, and even Gregory Eboigbodin has had his moments, but the one common theme has been inconsistency. Relying on freshman to play so much is always a gamble, and unfortunately, it has shown to be negative this year in the win column. This is not to discredit what guys like Frazier have done, but it is important to see that they still are making massive adjustments. Even the upperclassmen are still picking up the nuances of Underwood’s system.

Trust me Illini fans, I know it’s frustrating, and you’re probably sick of hearing me and the rest of the world say it, but be patient. Underwood knows what he’s doing, but there’s only so much you can do without any true centers and when you rely on four legitimate freshmen in your first season as a head coach. Better times are certainly ahead.

Real recognize real 

Opposing coaches, announcers, and players alike have all had one common thought after playing this Illinois team, and that is that they are much better than their record shows.

After Monday’s game, Izzo had similar comments on Underwood and his young team.

“I know he’s trying to build a culture here,” Izzo said. “He doesn’t have everything he wants. If his teams play that hard, he’s going to do a good job to rebuild that program.”

That alone is encouraging, but even beyond that, there are some interesting numbers to give some perspective on where this team is currently at.

Sure, starting 0-8 in the Big Ten is tough. Sitting at 10-11 on January 22 is less than ideal. But what’s important ti see through all of that is that this team is one; better than the record shows, and two; was never going to be an immediate contender.

Even the greats like Izzo and annual contenders like Michigan State aren’t built overnight, and Illinois is no exception.

Kipper Nichols…Sup? 

How about Kipper Nichols on Monday night?

Nichols went out against the No. 6 team in the nation and dropped 27 points and two rebounds. Granted, some of it was in garbage time before eventually closing the game on a nice little run, but it was still quite the impressive effort.

These types of outings are really encouraging considering the athletic ability that’s obviously there for Nichols, and when he is in this kind of zone, there is no ceiling on how well he can play. Hopefully we see him continue to put in work like he did against the Spartans.

Up Next: Indiana

No, they aren’t Michigan State, but Indiana is going to be another tough test coming off of another tough Big Ten loss. First year coach Archie Miller will bring his Hoosiers into the State Farm Center for the first time in his career, and will be a tough matchup for the Illini especially considering their size. Indiana also just beat a Maryland team that beat Illinois back in December.

The Hoosiers currently sit at 13-8 (6-3 Big Ten), and have played some tough basketball all season. After a slow start, the Hoosiers have put it together as of late, beating the likes of Iowa and Notre Dame, as well as hanging tight with Duke.

Though they’ve been a bit more successful in the win column, the Hoosiers sit in a very similar situation, and will make an interesting opponent on Wednesday night. Until then, the Illini will have one day to prepare for Bradley and the Hoosiers, before the 8:00 P.M. tipoff on Wednesday night.

@TPolc

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