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That was a good learning experience

Sloppy fouls and turnovers sunk Illinois against Virginia.

NCAA Basketball: Continental Tire Main Event-Illinois at UCLA Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

The Illini headed into their west coast trip without many challenges to this point in the season, with blowout wins over Quincy, Eastern Illinois, Kansas City and Monmouth. The talent has been evident in each contest, but how would they hold up against much higher level opponents?

The Illini’s early action in Vegas proved that Illinois has the speed, athleticism, and playmaking to hang with any team in the country. While there are still facets of the game that need work, there’s a great deal to be excited about as the Illini enter Big Ten play in a couple of weeks.

TSJ Steals the Show

Terrence Shannon Jr. really stole the show with a career-high 29 points, including tying a program-record with 8 made-threes, against No. 8 UCLA. He showed that he will be the go-to guy and lead this Illini team this season, both offensively and setting the tone defensively.

Dain Dainja gave Illinois a great lift with 13 points off the bench and adds a playmaking from the post dimension that hasn’t been there in years past.

All three freshman guards (Skyy Clark, Jayden Epps, and Sencire Harris) handled the big time atmosphere and pressure of the moment with great composure, with Harris in particular earning more love from the coaches, fans, and media for his defensive energy and transition offense.

While the Illini looked sped up as the Bruins dictated the pace early on, their formula of generating turnovers to get easy offense was on full display throughout this game, helping them overcome a 15-point deficit and not look back in the second half. Their constant pressure and instinctual team defense are key building blocks for this team through this early part of the season and this should translate well both in and outside of conference games.

On the other hand, the turnovers (21) are still an area of concern for this team to address.

There are some things to clean up...

As expected, this matchup against the Virginia Cavaliers on Sunday maintained a slower pace and strong individual defense on both sides, as Tony Bennett’s squad is one of the slowest paced teams in the country and plays for time of possession to help shorten the game and make things difficult for the opponent once they build a lead. The Illini competed well in the first half, matching the Cavaliers’ defense intensity and generating 7 turnovers in the first half to help jumpstart their dynamic transition attack and carry a two-point lead into the half.

Illinois also minimized their turnovers to 13 in this one, compared to 21 against UCLA.

Unfortunately, the Illini couldn’t sustain an effective offensive attack down the stretch when it mattered in the second half. Forced drives/shots and loose ball turnovers from Shannon and others created too many easy opportunities for Virginia.

The Cavaliers put a great deal of pressure on the Illini defense and forced them into fouls early and often. Consequently, the Cavaliers held a significant advantage at the free throw stripe, where they had 23 more attempts and 21 more points than the Illini. This advantage helped power a 13-3 run to the finish and close out the game for the Cavaliers.

It’s not getting easier

The Illini can’t afford to get behind the eight ball in the foul situation against slow-paced teams that minimize possessions and close out games well at the free throw line.

Thirty-four combined turnovers in the two games is a significant area of concern that will sink this team in big games if they can’t take better care of the ball. Collectively, the team needs to do a better job running their offense and getting better looks off of dribble drive action, rather than rushing into heavily contested perimeter jumpers or driving out of control into charging fouls and reckless turnovers.

Still, their ability to generate turnovers and get out in transition gave fans a great deal to cheer about this weekend. The energy, effort, and athletic prowess of this team should bode well for a successful season moving ahead.

Continuing to drill better defensive technique, better good decision making on the offensive end, and valuing possessions/reducing turnovers should all help Underwood and Co. right the ship moving forward.