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One bad loss won’t kill Illinois — as long as it’s only one

The Illini can’t let one frustrating outing snowball into more.

NCAA Basketball: Maryland at Illinois Ron Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Illinois seemingly entered a frigid Sunday afternoon matchup in Champaign against Maryland half-asleep — and were soon hit with a giant wake-up call at the hands of a 76-67 loss to the struggling Terps.

For a team that hadn’t skipped a beat since losing Terrence Shannon Jr. to suspension, Sunday’s performance provided the first real moment of crisis for this veteran group. Up to this point, the Illini’s resume was clean, and a 3-1 conference record began to spark discussions about whether or not they might challenge for the Big Ten’s crown.

They’ll now have to deal with the ramifications of a Quad 3 home loss to Maryland — a team that entered play 118th in the NCAA’s NET rankings and was just 1-11 in Big Ten road games under second-year head coach Kevin Willard.

It was just one of those days.

Despite generating some good looks, an Illinois offense that entered play top ten nationally couldn’t buy a bucket for much of the second half. For the game, the Illini shot a putrid 8-for-22 on shots at the rim to go along with a 1-for-14 second half from three-point range.

Coleman Hawkins and Quincy Guerrier came in having scored in double digits in seven straight games respectively. Both streaks ended Sunday. Justin Harmon shot 0-for-7 off the bench coming off a red-hot stretch from the floor to begin conference play.

Defensively, a Maryland offense that was all but broken put up one of its most efficient outings of the year thanks to the dominance of Jahmir Young and Julian Reese who the Illini just didn’t have an answer for. It wasn’t the product of a hot shooting night, but rather a multitude of defensive breakdowns and an inability to cut off drives.

Simply put — the Illini played their “F” game. Both mentally and from a shot-making perspective it was about as bad as we’ve seen this veteran group play amid a large sample of consistency.

In this year’s Big Ten, Illinois has to face a few realities.

One is that they’re going to be the hunted for much of the year. That’s nothing new to this program which has been towards the top of the conference for five seasons, but it’s particularly important in 2024 because the conference lacks quality more than it has in a long time.

Teams are going to give the Illini their best because it’s one of the few chances they have for a quality win that has wide-reaching effects for their postseason hopes. Illinois needs to match that urgency or they’re going to be in danger of suffering a damaging defeat.

TCR // Jack Jungmann

Another is that much of this season’s conference slate is going to be about survival. In most games — especially those at State Farm Center — Illinois doesn’t have much to gain from a victory other than taking care of an opponent it’s expected to beat. There’s far more to lose, however, as a slip-up can lead to a black cloud on its tournament resume.

Even on an off night, Illinois has the talent and experience to merely survive. Thursday night’s game against Michigan State stands as an example, as it was far from a top-notch performance, but it went in the win column nonetheless.

After a home loss to Maryland, the Illini’s margin for error has become much smaller but as long as they can find a way to stack wins, they’ll position themselves well.

According to KenPom, Illinois is favored to win all but three of its remaining conference games — road tilts with Michigan State and Wisconsin and a home rematch versus Purdue. That doesn’t mean every other game would be a bad loss, but it does mean that the Illini’s fate will be in their own hands.

One loss in isolation doesn’t kill them — nor should it drastically change the team’s expectations. The real test becomes how they respond in an upcoming schedule that remains extremely favorable.

Take care of a mess of a Michigan program and a bottoming Rutgers team and this one will fade into the past really quick. Carry this poor effort over and it becomes a much different discussion.

The response to the loss will speak far bigger volumes about who this Illinois team is than the loss itself.

For now, it’s on to the next.