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Despite losing to Purdue, Illinois’ roster is ready for primetime

Illinois has only three losses on the year. And they are “good losses.”

Syndication: Journal-Courier Alex Martin/Journal and Courier / USA TODAY NETWORK

Good teams don’t tout moral victories. They’re in it for the W and nothing else.

Almost isn’t a badge of honor for squads that see their potential as cutting down nets and enduring Bill Raftery.

Mackey Arena is not an easy place to play. It’s a legitimate home-court advantage for Matt Painter’s consistently high-performing squad. This year, that squad is led by a basketball Ivan Drago/Frankenstein’s Monster hybrid with bolts protruding from his neck. That mutant freak is going to be National Player of the Year.

That team is also the top-ranked team in the nation.

So losing in that arena to that team with that guy is not a season killer. It’s not even a rankings killer.

But make no mistake about it, the Illini made a profound statement in defeat in West Lafayette on Friday.

Without their best player, the Illini had a second wind that almost knocked off the country’s top team.

Zach Edey didn’t dominate the Illini despite Illinois’ smaller frontline. Edey was in foul trouble for much of the game, but the Illini couldn’t fully capitalize. Trey Kaufman-Renn picked up the slack with 23 points for the Boilermakers.

This season for the Illini is all about roster construction. This team is built to weather storms and win with balance. Without their superstar, the Illini supporting staff played with house money in Hoosier Country and came back from 20-plus points down to create a one-possession game late.

Illinois v Purdue Photo by Justin Casterline/Getty Images

Then we all know what happened: after a flagrant foul, Illinois lost the ensuing possession on a costly travel from team leader Coleman Hawkins.

But in the most Coleman Hawkins thing in history, he followed up a costly mistake with a massive three-point field goal.

I’ve gotten this far in my column without mentioning Marcus Domask, who embodied the Illini’s performance. He started slowly, caught fire, and then gave up the rock with a key late turnover. It stung, but make no mistake about it, Domask’s big games are not the result of a fluke. Domask is a prime-time player with the institutional memory, versatility, and confidence to make a major impact on a tournament team.

Quincy Guerrier took a scary fall late in the game. And then he came right back and nailed both free throws. Illinois is getting the size, toughness, and versatility from Guerrier that it expected/desired from Matthew Mayer last season. He has been a singular upgrade to a frontcourt lacking in experience. As the season progresses amidst the dog days of conference play, Guerrier will be a key floor-spacer, rebounder, defender, and decision-maker.

The 83-78 loss for the Illini represents a clear statement: the difference between the Illini and the top team in the conference is negligible. In times of adversity, this team has demonstrated its resilience. Two blowout wins and a more than respectable showing in defeat demonstrate what several of my colleagues believe: this is Brad Underwood’s best Illinois team.

There is no easy path to the vaunted tournament run. It’s not handed to you based on talent or denied to you based on recruiting rankings. It’s built on the backs of the roster you built and how the chosen players can execute in big moments.

The Purdue loss is the kind of loss that Tom Izzo’s Michigan State teams endure to get tournament tough. It’s the kind of loss that gives Dra Gibbs-Lawhorn valuable experience heading into the meat of conference play. His explosiveness could be an X-factor.

It is the kind of loss that Hawkins and Domask can stew over. It will lead to intense practices and renewed focus.

And this season, the squad seems perfectly capable of achieving that focus and coming back from on-court adversity with the same vigor with which they are handling off-court adversity.