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Illinois looking to fix issues heading into home game against Maryland

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Brad Underwood’s team is getting its first taste of adversity this season

NCAA Basketball: Illinois at Northwestern Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

Going into Sunday’s matchup against the Maryland Terrapins, the Illinois Fighting Illini will be looking to end a two-game losing streak.

Illinois seems to be repeating similar mistakes, evident in this week’s two losses. Head coach Brad Underwood took some time before Saturday afternoon’s practice to address some of these issues.

Frequent foul troubles

It is no secret that the Illini have been hacking their opponents this year. They currently rank 341th amongst Division I teams in fouls per game with 23.8.

This has caused several players to miss crucial minutes — minutes that may have potentially altered the outcome of their two losses.

When Illinois suffered its first loss of the season against the Wake Forest Demon Deacons, junior forward Michael Finke was rendered useless due to foul trouble.

Finke was coming off back-to-back over 20-point games entering Tuesday night, but he was limited to only two points.

He picked up two quick fouls early on the first half that resulted in him sitting the bench for a majority of that half, then picked up two more fairly soon in the second as well. Because of foul trouble, Finke was never able to get into the flow of the game.

The same could be said about Mark Smith in the Illini’s second loss of the season against the Northwestern Wildcats. Just like Finke, Smith picked up two early fouls that essentially took out for the rest of game because of the lack of fluidity that resulted.

Smith played only eight minutes against the Wildcats.

With Smith being the only exception, Illinois was able to keep themselves out of foul trouble.

“With the exception of Mark Smith having two in the first minute and a half, it was pretty enjoyable,” Underwood said. “I was able to actually coach without foul trouble being part of it.”

Twenty-six new rules were implemented into college basketball this offseason, and Underwood said his team is still adapting to them.

“We got to make adjustments accordingly,” Underwood said. “I thought we were much better (against Northwestern) than when we were (against Wake Forest), yet we committed some silly ones.”

Improvements needed in the half-court offense

While it is obvious that the Illini have significantly upped the tempo in transition this season from the John Groce era, they have been struggling when the game has been getting slowed down into the half-court.

When Illinois is forced into its half-court offense, opponents change their defensive scheme and get set up to limit the Illini’s execution.

For example, junior guard Aaron Jordan has been the most accurate three-point shooter in the country, shooting 67 percent from deep (20-of-30). However, the Wildcats schemed properly against Jordan and only allowed him to get one shot off from beyond-the-arc — a make, for what it’s worth.

“They did a great job of spotting him, and again that’s our half-court execution,” Underwood said. “I got to be able to scheme out of our spread. We’re not executing well enough, and that’s on me.

“We got to be able to scheme what the defense is doing and play off that and we are not there yet.”

Growing pains for the Illini

Both of Illinois’ losses so far this season can be chalked up to poor play in the late stretches of the game. The Illini failed to get quality shots against the Demon Deacons late in that game which allowed them to eventually pull away.

Against Northwestern, Illinois failed to score off four turnovers committed by Northwestern toward the end of regulation and had to be carried by sophomore guard Te’Jon Lucas in overtime to stay in it.

Lucas, however, took a very poor shot to try and tie the game when he instead could have passed it to senior guard Mark Alstork for a wide-open jumper.

These are just some of the growing pains a young, and somewhat inexperienced, team will have to come face-to-face with through their first season together.

“Winning is hard, and there is a mentality and attitude that goes with winning,” Underwood said. “It’s not always about making plays for yourself, it’s about learning to make plays for others in the framework of what we do.”