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No doubt about it: Illinois is mature — and ready for the season

After beating the nation’s top team, can we celebrate yet?

TCR // David Pollak

TCR Contributor CJ Jackson is a former member of the Illinois Basketball team, playing for the Illini from 2005-09.

Now that the dust has settled from the No. 25 ranked Illini’s Sunday night’s win over No. 1 Kansas, can we now begin to get excited about this upcoming season? Exhibition games are interesting, are they not?

On one side, a big school plays against a local DIII school and blows them out 110-40…nobody bats an eye. “The game was just a chance to play against other players and get up and down a bit.”

If that same DIII school keeps the game close or even get a W, then all hell breaks loose and that big school is in trouble for the upcoming season.

So what can be said about the Illini victory over Kansas? I think there is a lot to take from that exhibition game.

Kansas, the top preseason team in the country, tried to win.

Kansas coming into the season as the No. 1 ranked team means something in its locker room. At no point did Bill Self say to them, “It’s just an exhibition, go out there and have some fun and the results will be whatever they are.”

David Pollak // TCR

It was the complete opposite of that.

The energy in that locker room was undoubtably that this would be the first real opportunity to show how dominant Kansas will be this season. With the addition of Hunter Dickinson, who was already dominant in the Big Ten, and Kevin McCullar Jr. in the backcourt, Kansas should be off to a great start…even with it being an exhibition. They were locked in and ready to go win that ballgame.

Illinois is MUCH more mature this year than last.

Illinois is a whole lot more mature this year than they have shown in the past few seasons. Having the No. 1 ranked team come to town on a Sunday night isn’t something immature athletes can remain focus and poised about.

Even with a few hard fouls and tussles throughout the game, the Illini never fell behind in the second half. That’s maturity right there.

Being able to lock into the moment and finish each possession is vital if teams want to compete at the top.

Illinois has that dawg in them.

We have a few dogs on the team that aren’t afraid of big moments.

Obviously it was clear with Terrence Shannon Jr.’s big night. But with Ty Rodger’s first half and Coleman Hawkins’ big shot and assist late in the closing minutes, it’s good to see players step up in big moments.

Especially good to see them step into those moments EARLY in the year because those moments will normalize over the course of the season. Enough big moments experienced and there’s no situation a team could face where they’ll be nervous or not use to that big stage.

This is great for longevity in March.

One thing is true. No matter if this was an exhibition, scrimmage, season opener, Big Ten tourney, or Final Four matchup, you want to see the Illini fight hard out there and find a way to come out with a win. Winning isn’t something that can just be turned on whenever it’s the most needed.

For anybody who has been in a serious sports program where you see the weight lifting, the practices, the media days, the conditioning, the pre-game warm ups and so on and so forth…one thing’s for sure: Guys who win when the cameras are on are the same guys that win when nobody is watching or keeping tabs.

Seeing the Illini play comfortable and confident in an exhibition game against the No. 1 team in the country shows me how much this team EXPECTS to win ball games. Shows me how willing they are to dive on the floor no matter the moment to get the extra possession. This is something we’ve always loved about Brad Underwood’s teams. Hopefully we’ll see this continue throughout the season and pile on top of the success we’ve had the last few seasons in the conference.

It sounds good to say that we’re the winningest team in the Big Ten over the last four seasons. At the same time that sounds like the Golden State Warriors bragging about being the winningest team in regular season history going 73-9. But all of that falls on deaf ears when LeBron and the Cleveland Cavaliers come back from being down 3-1 to win the championship against them that same season.

We have to make some noise in the big dance this year. We must win some hardware. With what we all saw on Sunday night against a more than worthy opponent, this could be a reality this season as long as they stay hungry and continue to gel and grow.