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Wake Forest 80, Illinois 73: What we learned

The Fighting Illini drop their first game of the season in the Big Ten-ACC Challenge.

NCAA Basketball: Illinois at Wake Forest Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

Illinois lost its first game of the season on the road to Wake Forest, 80-73. It was a game that Illinois came out on fire in, but, after Wake Forest adjusted and switched to a zone defense, the visitors began to strugle on offense. A comeback attempt late in the second half came up short, and Illinois now sits at 6-1.

Here are some key takeaways.

Aaron Jordan is shooting out of his mind

We mentioned it after last game, but it again should be pointed out that Aaron Jordan is shooting out of his mind right now. Coming off the bench again, Jordan was Illinois leading scorer with 20 points on 6-of-10 shooting. Jordan was 4-of-6 from three and he continues to lead the NCAA in three-point shooting percentage at 65.5 percent.

Jordan’s effective field goal percentage stands at 85.2 percent, which is a drop-off. Jordan went 6-of-10 from the field and his shooting number decreased. His remarkable turnaround is the best story of the season so far for the Illini.

Foul trouble, on both ends of the court

Illinois committed 24 fouls in this game, compared to only 13 for the Demon Deacons. Wake Forest won the game by eight largely, thanks to its superiority from the free throw line. Wake Forest took 31 total free throws, making 24 of them, while Illinois only got 13 from the charity stripe.

Two Illinois starters — Michael Finke and Te’jon Lucas — also had to sit for large chunks of the game due to foul trouble. Finke’s absence was especially damaging.

There were some questionable calls from the referees, but foul troubles have been a trend so far from Illinois.

Brad Underwood’s team foul more often than most due to the aggressive style of defense and an exceptionally quick pace, but there is a fine line between aggressive play and reckless play. The Illini need to find the right balance.

Lack of size cost Illinois for the first time this season

When Finke was forced to sit, Leron Black became Illinois’ tallest player — listed at a generous 6-foot-7. Black can play above his size, but he is not a rim protector, and, on offense, he had major difficulties against the Deacons’ 2-3 zone defense and the length and size of 7-foot-1 Doral Moore.

When Black got the ball in the post, he was quickly marked by Moore with some additional help from guards pinching in. They took away space for him to shoot any turnaround jumpers over Moore. Black was frustrated by the defense all night on the way to a 3-for-12 shooting performance.

Illinois shot 41 percent from three point range while only shooting 36.3 percent on two point shots, further showing struggles to score inside.

This is an issue we knew that Illinois would struggle with this season, and for the first time in 2017, it hurt Illinois.

Questionable at best refereeing decisions

I’m not one to blame referees for losses. Often it’s an easy way to point the finger at outside forces rather than for a team to look at themselves on reflect on what they could have done better to win. It’s the easy way out.

But tonight, oh boy tonight, there were two extremely questionable calls that went against the Illini. Combine that with the “home-court advantage” that Wake Forest saw in foul calls, it’s impossible to not come to the conclusion that the officials had a more significant impact on the outcome than usual.

The first of two calls that went against Illinois happened in the first half. A offensive foul was called on Wake Forest for an elbow that hit Mark Alstork in the face. The call was then put under review to check for a flagrant foul as if often the case with possible contact to the head.

This review took around five agonizing minutes, and this long delay took both teams out of their rhythm, which hurts a team that likes to play with a quick pace like Illinois. Not only did Wake Forest not get called with the flagrant foul — which they did not deserve — the foul was completely wiped off the board. The officials called it an inadvertent whistle and play continued.

The call itself wasn’t as poor as the delay. Illinois started off the half very well, and this killed all the momentum the team had going. It’s also rare to see refs take away fouls upon review, but I’ve leave that alone for now. It was the delay that was unacceptable.

The second call was even more head-scratching.

Finke was called for a foul on this play, which was correct. What what strange is Moore clearly interfered with the basket on the play, but the basketball was allowed to stand? The foul occurred just before the basket interference happened, but that shouldn’t wipe out the fact that the basket interference happened and the three points should not have been allowed.

Illinois has a right to feel this call was unjustified, even it it was within the rules due to Finke’s foul before Moore interfered with the basket. This single play didn’t force Illinois to lose this game, but it would have been a much different game late if this didn’t happen.