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New Mexico State 74, Illinois 69: What we learned

Illinois lost another close game with poor late-game execution.

NCAA Basketball: Maryland at Illinois Mike Granse-USA TODAY Sports

Illinois lost to New Mexico State in Chicago in another one of those — seriously these need to stop — United Center games. Illinois looked bad in the first half and found itself in a double-digit hole. The team was able to adjust and fight its way back into the game in the second half, only to drop the game at the end due to poor late-game execution.

Stop me if you heard that one before.

1. Illinois had to simplify the offense again, and it worked.

Illinois couldn’t get anything going on the offensive side of the ball in the first half. There was no rhythm and ball movement and shooting was poor.

In the second half, Brad Underwood simplified the offensive gameplan, and it allowed to Illinois to regain the lead after being down by as many as 12 points. Illinois used a lot of simple two-man pick-and-roll looks and focused on getting the ball to Leron Black in the post.

Illinois was much more confident in these sets, and the Illini had a much more effective offense. Black, Trent Frazier, and Te’Jon Lucas all benefited from that change and had big second halves (17, 9 and 12 points, respectively).

This is yet another game where it has become clear that Underwood’s spread offense just doesn’t work with the current personnel on the roster. We have seen flashes, but often the offense becomes predictable and ineffective and leads to far too many turnovers.

It may be time for Brad Underwood to stop trying to force the square peg into the round hole and run a simpler, pick-and-roll based offense from the start of games.

2. Trent Frazier and Te’Jon Lucas playing together was good.

Frazier and Lucas have not shared the court often this season.

In the second half Saturday, they played a huge chunk of minutes together, and it played a large role in the comeback for the Illini. The ball moved better with two point guards, and Illinois could swing the ball to both sides of the court while maintaining a playmaking threat.

With Mike Alstork and Mark Smith prone to bad games and inconsistent play, we could see more of Lucas and Frazier sets on the floor in the future.

3. Another late-game disaster.

Illinois had a baseline out of bounds play and a chance to take the lead with the score tied at 69 with 31 seconds remaining. Again, Illinois committed a turnover that led to an and-one basket by AJ Harris. A couple of missed free throws by Frazier sealed the Illini’s fate.

The late-game execution by the Illini has been very poor in close games this season, and they have turned the ball over in key inbounding situations on several occasions. The bad decision-making late in games is appalling, and it’s really frustrating to see similar mistakes repeating themselves throughout the season.

This is a young Illini team, and young teams are going to make mistakes particularly late in games. However, not being able to simply inbound the ball late in games is beyond ‘young team’ mistakes.

Illinois needs to fix its execution and mentality late in games fast, or face even more heartbreakers.