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The Illini come up short in another non-conference heartbreaker.

NCAA Basketball: Illinois at Notre Dame Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

This is what I kept thinking as I watched the second half unfold on Tuesday night.

Wake Forest. Northwestern. Maryland. UNLV. Iowa. Georgetown. Gonzaga. Notre Dame.

Those are eight soul crushing defeats the Illini have suffered in the 39 games they’ve played under head coach Brad Underwood. The only close calls to go Illinois’ way have been against Missouri and Indiana. And, while those two teams are two of the program’s biggest rivals, they don’t even begin to kill the taste left from that long list of losses.

The predictability is the worst part.

Illinois slept walk through the first 15 minutes of the first half, only to put together a heroic run to close the game that would ultimately come up just short — and we fell for it again.

The Illini ran into an incredible defensive effort from the Irish in the second half, and Trent Frazier wasn’t able to come alive to bail them out when Notre Dame’s DJ Harvey got hot down the stretch.

The most disappointing part is that Illinois plays well enough to win most of these close ones. If I told you before the game that Jordan and G-Bez were going to score 45 points, you would probably bet a lot on the Illinois money line.

The other disappointing part? Go back and read that list of teams we’ve lost nail-biters to.

If you throw away Gonzaga, we are looking at high major opponents that fell or likely will fall in the bottom third of their conference standings. That was a young Notre Dame team that let Illinois do almost whatever they wanted, and they still found a way to let it slip away.

Like many fans, I’m waiting for the one premier game for the breakthrough, for the levee to break, and for the program to never look back on these losing ways. But for now, we wait.

Three Names

Aaron Freakin’ Jordan

Jordan has taken another step. Oftentimes, players make their biggest leaps headed into years two and three, but Jordan is having his best season yet in his final campaign. Much like last season, Jordan is lighting it up from three in the non-conference, hitting 50 percent of his threes on 42 attempts. He’s absolutely on fire. The difference this year is five of the seven opponents have been against high major competition. Jordan fell off last year in conference play when he was matched up with long athletic wings night in and night out in the Big Ten.

Another thing to notice is Jordan’s range. This year, he is not afraid to come off the screen and settle a few feet beyond the arc in order to give himself an extra second of space. It doesn’t matter if his toe is on the line or if he is backed up five feet off the line. This versatility and optionality coming off the screen is going to make it harder for chasing defenders and give him a just enough room needed to get his shot off.

Most importantly, Jordan has shown some proficiency attacking the rim, which is something he’s done almost nothing of during his first three years in Champaign. He looks much more comfortable and confident driving by defenders, and shooting or passing out of the lane. Last year, it was incredibly easy for defenders to sprint to the shooter when the ball was kicked to him. The scouting report on him was that you needed to closeout as hard as possible because he was not a threat once he put the ball on the floor. Even this brief glimpse of playmaking ability opens up a lot for the Illini and Jordan in the half-court. If defenders are even a half step more hesitant on their closeouts on Jordan due to his threat to drive, he is going to have a lot more chances to get off threes this season.

Adonis De La Rosa

It’s not good, guys.

Let’s preface all of this with the understanding that ADLR is a 270-pound man coming off knee surgery. He’s still working his way back into game shape, and frankly, none of us really expected anything from him at this point.

The problem is, however, that nothing may be better at this point.

Unadjusted plus/minus can be flukey but a -12 in four minutes is no fluke. ADLR has an Offensive Rating (ORtg — a measure of points produced per 100 possessions) of 79.7 which is a team low for players with at least 50 minutes played. The next lowest is Alan Griffin at 94.9. The rest of the team falls between 100 and 130. De La Rosa had an ORtg of zero on Tuesday.

De La Rosa is clearly rushed and determined when he gets the ball. To put it bluntly, he is the definition of a black hole on offense right now. There is no intention of the ball being anything but heaved toward the rim once it’s entered into him. And, until he gets his legs and touch back, that’s basically a wasted possession for Illinois.

It’s either time for Samba Kane to get some run, or for Illinois to go small until Adonis De La Rosa creeps closer to full strength.

Da’Monte Williams

If you’ve read any of my posts or listened to any of the podcasts on TCR, you probably know I have a huge basketball crush on Da’Monte Williams. Last year he had a few boneheaded, late-game turnovers. Combine that with recovering from knee surgery, and the narrative was that Williams had a disappointing freshman year. But, if you were watching closely, you could tell that Williams was a step ahead mentally. Frankie’s instinct and feel for the game was passed down in a different way. Williams hardly ever misses a defensive rotation or takes an ill-advised shot.

Last night was a perfect example of a Da’Monte Williams game. He had an off-shooting night and didn’t make a shot from the field, even though his shot has looked better and been falling a bit more.

However, Williams had six points (6-6 from the FT line, including some clutch last minute FTs), seven rebounds, five assists, four steals and only one turnover in 25 minutes after fouling out late in the game. Williams also likely leads the team in the “that won’t show up in the box score” stats. Remember the Matto award Illinois used to give out that tracked effort plays, diving for loose balls and taking charges? Well, Da’Monte Williams would probably be leading the race for that award too.

Another reason I love Williams is because the numbers love Williams. Through seven games, Williams leads the team in Free Throw Rate (FTr — FTA/FGA) at 72 percent. The next closest rotation player? Adonis De La Rosa at 35 percent. That’s an absolutely jarring number. We all wanted to see Da’Monte Williams get more aggressive on the offensive end and take more shots, but it’s not in his nature to just jack up bad shots. But we are seeing that offensive aggression take place in a different form — getting to the line at an insane rate. And not only is he getting there, but he’s knocking them down at an 81 percent clip. He shot 70 percent last year, and if there’s any indicator to tell us if a player can grow into a plus shooter, it’s how he shoots at the line. And, oh yeah, that team high ORtg of 130 I mentioned earlier? That’s right, Da’Monte Williams.

Williams’ defense has also proved invaluable. He leads the team in steal rate, which was on display again last night, defensive box plus/minus, and overall box plus minus. At the beginning of the year, I had a feeling Da’Monte Williams was going to demand starters minutes and I may have been right. I just may have been wrong about who he would be taking them from.

Three Numbers

10

The number of shots Notre Dame blocked Tuesday night. The Illini fouled out Notre Dame’s starting center in 10 minutes, which opened the door for reserve Juwan Durham to come in and wreck the game with his long arms by tallying five blocks in 17 minutes. He was a big reason behind the Illini’s second half scoring drought, forcing the Illini guards away from the paint for most of the second half.

65.4%

That was the assist rate for Illinois on Tuesday night. It was also the assist rate they put up against Xavier on the final day in Maui. The season high assist rate of 78.4 percent came over the weekend in the victory against MVSU. Over the first five games, the highest that number got was 56. If nothing else, this is an encouraging trend for the offense. Even though we saw Illinois go through a drought in each half last night, they were moving the ball much better in the half-court spread offense than we’ve seen in the past.

What stood out was the willingness to beat the defender off the dribble and kick it back out to start another cycle of the spread. This got the Irish chasing a little bit and led to some much cleaner looks. They just have to finish a few more of them.

But it was encouraging to see a sense of urgency in the half-court offense as opposed to a team simply going through the motions.

9

That’s the number of rebounds freshman point guard Ayo Dosunmu has had in each of the last two games. After having 17 rebounds in his first five games, Ayo has grabbed 18 in his last two. And that’s why he is so special. It’s clear that with a thin frontcourt and a struggling Kipper Nichols that Illinois needs more out of its guards on the glass. Underwood and the coaching staff have likely been on him every day in practice to help out on the glass. He’s taking it to heart, and you can tell. He is on a hunt for every single rebound. An Ayo rebound is an added bonus because it acts as a turnover since he can get out and run the fast break right away. Ayo’s nine boards led the Illini to win the rebounding battle over the Irish 37-33.