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The Illini remembered that they’re a competent basketball team

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That was a lot tougher than it should have been

NCAA Basketball: Illinois at Penn State Matthew OHaren-USA TODAY Sports

If you’re a Chicago sports fan under the age of 30, you’ve been conditioned to expect to lose. Especially when you’re down big. You joke about it in school or at work. Your family’s so cynical about sports that your cynicism transcends sports and impacts other parts of your life.

So you’re in your apartment the night before the Christmas Eve. You can’t see your family this year. You turn on BTN and have you’re forced to watch the end of an OSU-Rutgers game that had been over for 20 minutes. And when they finally switch it over to Illinois-Penn State, the Illini are down 19-4. Instantly, the bad sports memories start coming back.

And then something miraculous happens. The Illini remember that they’re a competent basketball team. This is not a coronation. They beat Penn State. They should win by 17.

The Illini have problems. Adam Miller looks timid off the dribble. Trent and Andre Curbelo got straight up schooled on some crossovers. Giorgi decided to give up on multiple defensive possessions, and wasn’t closing out on defenders. But, my biggest concern is that the Illini aren’t communicating on defense.

Early on in the season, I noticed that Ayo was going over screens instead of going under or switching. If there’s one thing I learned as an unathletic pickup player in high school, it’s that you always go under or switch if your teammate picks up the ball handler.

Why go over a screen when you can meet your guy under much easier? Maybe Ayo thought he could pick the ball from behind and get an easy transition bucket. And that’s fine for your star player in the first half. But when the game’s on the line against a bad Ohio team?

There wasn’t anything as egregious in this game, but Ayo has the potential to be the best defender on the team. And the Illini have the potential to be the best defensive team in the Big Ten. Maybe Brad Underwood is okay with letting Kofi dominate the glass and find Curbelo, so Curbelo can throw a Hail Mary to Ayo down the court.

And that’s all well and good. I like transition buckets as much as the next guy, but Ayo is the leader of this team, and he needs to lead by example by communicating on defense. Curbelo and Miller are impressionable young players who are shaky on defense. If they’re not watching Ayo’s every move, they should be.

Despite their defensive woes, Ayo dropped 30, Kofi hit 11 of 13 shots, Curbelo got 15 points and eight assists, and the Illini got the win. This trio is becoming a formidable, pro-style Big 3. But they still have flaws. We’ve mentioned Ayo’s. Curbelo’s and Kofi’s flaws are more self-explanatory. Before the Penn State game, Kofi couldn’t stop fouling, and Curbelo couldn’t stop turning the ball over.

Those flaws are still there, but you wouldn’t know it from last night. The plays that Curbelo was making in the lane last night looked like vintage Chris Paul. If Curbelo can continue holding onto the ball while doing the things he does in midair, the Illini could be a capital-G Great team.

If Kofi can limit the fouls, make the short-range shots he was making last night, and start making his free throws, the Illini could do what Ayo came back for. Win championships.