Illinois Basketball: Breakdown of the Illini against Longwood & NM State


It was another disappointing week for Brad Underwood’s Illinois basketball team. So, what can be taken away from this week’s action?

Illinois split this week’s games, going 1-1. They opened the week with a decisive 92-45 home victory over Longwood. This was an expected win, as the Lancers are currently ranked No. 349 in the RPI rankings out of 351 eligible teams.

There wasn’t really much to take away from this game. It was really nice to see guys like Greg Eboigbodin and Matic Vesel get some meaningful minutes, though. Aaron Jordan (22 points, 8 rebounds), Michael Finke (19 points, 7 rebounds) and Trent Frazier (20 points) had solid games as well.

But the game that really needs to be looked at from this week is the Illini’s loss to New Mexico State at the United Center on Saturday, 74-69.

I would like to start off by mentioning the United Center game. These games just aren’t the same anymore, and I’ve seen numerous people across social media feeling the same way.

I used to go to the United Center game almost every year when they played top-notch teams like Gonzaga and Oregon. But now, the attendance has gone way down. Fans aren’t as interested in coming because of the opponents the Illini have played in recent years. I think they should schedule a better opponent for this game or just do away with the game altogether.

Now, don’t get me wrong, the Aggies are a solid mid-major team that will likely win the WAC and make the NCAA tournament. They are currently ranked No. 85 in the RPI rankings and are also No. 94 in the KenPom rankings. This is a team that I think has the experience and talent to pull off an upset or two in March.

With that considered, the Illini still should have won this game. That’s all there is to it, this game should have been won. Again, the Illini failed to make key plays down the stretch. Their inexperience really showed. Underwood’s team just can’t close out a game right now, and because of that, they are 0-5 against KenPom top-100 opponents.

Much like the Northwestern game with Te’Jon Lucas, Trent Frazier had the hot hand and tried to ride that in crucial moments. In doing so, he took a couple of one-on-one contested bad shots, which again shows the inexperience of the Illini.

CHAMPAIGN, IL – DECEMBER 16: Trent Frazier
CHAMPAIGN, IL – DECEMBER 16: Trent Frazier /

Another key play was obviously the inbounds pass with just over 30 seconds left in the game. Illinois had the chance to run down the clock for the last shot, but instead, Jordan threw an awful pass that was stolen leading to an Aggies score. That really wrapped things up for NM State, as the Illini couldn’t score again.

What a frustrating and devastating loss. These are the kinds of losses that hurt badly at the end of the season. In recent years, the Illini always seem to have a few of these types of losses that push them out of the tournament. Again, the Aggies aren’t a bad team by any means, but Illinois really needed that one.

Although there were many mistakes down the stretch, the Illini really shot themselves in the foot by their performance at the beginning of the game. The Illini got down by as much as 15 and trailed 38-26 going into halftime. The offense was very stagnant, and nobody could stop Zach Lofton. Lofton is a potential NBA talent, but somebody needed to step up and play tougher against him. He was scoring with ease in the first half.

The Illini had a much better second half, but it is baffling how badly they have played in the first half this season. They dig themselves such a deep hole. It would be nice to see them put together two solid halves instead of just one.

Although this was a head-scratching loss, it is still not the time to panic for Illini fans. Just the fact that Illinois has been in every single game they’ve played is a very good sign. People may be questioning Underwood a little, but he is known to improve his teams as the season goes on.

Remember, at Oklahoma State last year, his team began conference play going 0-6 and were 11-8 overall at that point. They then turned their season completely around and finished at 20-13. It is not easy to completely change a program’s system and mentality, and the process will certainly take time. Underwood knows how to improve on his mistakes and he is fully expected to do that.

There were still some positives of the game too. Trent Frazier (13 points) continues to impress, and Te’Jon Lucas (14 points) had a good game as well. It was good to see Leron Black (17 points, 8 rebounds) come back from an injury and lead the Illinois comeback.

The Illini really could have used Kipper Nichols during this game, as he was limited to just 10 minutes with that foot injury. I think he would’ve added some toughness out there, and Michael Finke really struggled again, going just 2-10 from the field. Finke did pull down 9 rebounds though, which is good to see.

All in all, the Illini just need to keep trying to get better, and I think they will do that. I think they will look like a much different team in a month or so. The Braggin’ Rights game Saturday in St. Louis against Missouri is a huge game.

Next: Takeaways from the Illini loss to New Mexico State

The Tigers are currently ranked No. 4 in the RPI rankings, and could potentially be in the top-25 in the next AP rankings. This would be a huge win for Illinois and would keep their postseason hopes alive. A loss would mean the Illini would have to go on a pretty solid run in conference play to have a chance at the tournament, which is probably pretty unlikely.