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NCAA Basketball: Nebraska at Illinois
A win is a win.
Ron Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

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Never a dull moment with this Illinois team. Not one.

A win is a win.

Happy Monday, Illinois Land!

Never a dull moment. Never an easy win.

These Illini, and particularly this head coach, seem to be insistent on making every home game its own version of some sort of personal crying game.

The previous statement is tongue-in-cheek. Somewhat.

Despite Keisei Tominaga doing a legit Steph Curry impression and dropping 31 points in 33 minutes (5-7 from three, 9-14 from the floor and 8-8 from the line), and making some of the tougher shots I’ve seen in person, Illinois held a 10-point lead with under four minutes to go, 72-62.

NCAA Basketball: Nebraska at Illinois
Hawkins slashes to the bucket against Nebraska.
Ron Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Before I get into how poorly the head coach, and his team, executed the last four minutes of regulation, I don’t want that noise to cloud the individual performances of this game on the Illinois side. We’ll get to Underwood in a few minutes.

Here’s TCR’s Ethan Holesha with the recap. “Near collapse” is a kind way to phrase this.

Here are some individual games for the Illini in the Nebraska win.

Let’s start with the starters.

  • Coleman Hawkins: 20 points, 7 rebounds, 5 assists, 2 steals, and 2 turnovers. There is a long line of great Hawkins performances recently. Hawkins also forced Rienk Mast into tough shots at the rim, as the Huskers’ big man went only 4-of-12 on twos for the game.
  • Marcus Domask: 19 points, 3 rebounds, 5 assists and 2 turnovers. Good Domask game, not great. His wide-open three shooting woes continues deep into the season.
  • Terrence Shannon, Jr.: 18 points (6-16), 2 rebounds, 2 assists, 1 turnover. Ten threes is too many for TSJ. He was forced to take some difficult threes late in the clock, which admittedly adds to the total.
  • Ty Rodgers: 8 points, 14 rebounds (5 offensive), three assists and two turnovers. So many rebounds. Rodgers played more in this game, and his rebounding was called a “difference maker” by Underwood post-game in the presser.
NCAA Basketball: Nebraska at Illinois
Rodgers pumps up the crowd after a thrilling OT victory that should have been much simpler.
Ron Johnson-USA TODAY Sports
  • Quincy Guerrier: 12 points and 7 rebounds. Shoot the ball, Quincy. Shoot. The. Damn. Ball.
  • As a group: 9-of-23 from three (39.1%)

Here’s the bench.

NCAA Basketball: Nebraska at Illinois
Dainja was nearly perfect. He needs to practice unguarded dunks, apparently.
Ron Johnson-USA TODAY Sports
  • As a group: 0-of-11 from three
  • Luke Goode and Justin Harmon: 37 minutes and only four total points. Missed all 10 three-point attempts. All 10 were open, feet set and catch and shoot. That can’t happen, especially at home.
  • Dain Dainja: 6 points and 3 rebounds in nine minutes. He was 3-4 from the floor. The only miss? An uncontested dunk. Legitimately uncontested. Unreal.

Underwood gives some perplexing answers — and predictions — about his poor strategic decision to call a timeout in the last four minutes of the game up by 10. This is wild stuff, even for BU.

TSJ had just banged a corner three off a nice pass from Hawkins. State Farm Center morphed into a madhouse. Chaos everywhere.

Nebraska had to use one of its two remaining timeouts to stop the bleeding, hamstringing head coach Fred Hoiberg dramatically in the final minutes of the game.

Oh, wait. My bad.

Underwood called the timeout...inexplicably.

Despite this overtly poor decision — and the benefit of hindsight — Nebraska ended the game on an 11-1 run to force overtime. Underwood commented that he’d do it again “over and over again” despite (by his own admission) the decision “maybe changed a little bit of the momentum there.”

NCAA Basketball: Nebraska at Illinois
Tominaga put on a show for the sold-out State Farm Center.
Ron Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Here are the myriad reasons that this is troubling to say the least, and malpractice at the worst.

  • Called a timeout to set the defense, even though they “knew what was coming.” Underwood claimed it would be Tominaga and Mast in a ball screen. Illinois wanted to change its coverage on this play. BU called it a “slight change.”
  • They did not, in fact, know what was coming. Nebraska’s Brice Williams makes a three on the right wing nine seconds later, cutting the lead to seven.
  • It allowed Hoiberg, a widely known tactician, to draw up a different play than what Illinois “knew was coming” and to change anything schematically on the defensive end.
  • Did not force Nebraska to execute in a high-leverage environment.
  • Did not force Hoiberg to use one of his two remaining timeouts.
  • Broke the real momentum Illinois had in the building.

Pre-timeout: 72-62

Rest of regulation: 11-1 run by Nebraska.

Maybe remove the maybe. No. On second thought, remove it altogether.

I don’t get into the habit of parsing a coach’s answer during press conferences, particularly post-game pressers after a pressure cooking game. Underwood is a little different in the fact that he’s brutally honest, even when speaking about his own performance and decisions.

The timeout that Underwood called did not do a single thing that he wanted it to do. Not one. Yet, Underwood says he would do it again. And again. And again.

NCAA Basketball: Nebraska at Illinois
Not a good look for Underwood.
Ron Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

I don’t recall Bill Self calling for a timeout up 10 with The Phog rolling, or Coach K asking for a huddle with the Crazies are losing their minds leading by double-digits with under four minutes remaining.

Underwood routinely does this after a made three, particularly at home. He’s the only one that does it. There’s a reason for that.

Despite Tominaga going scorched earth and Nebraska shooting well behind the arc as a group, Illinois still won the game by overcoming poor shooting and coaching decisions.

Let’s not lose sight of the fact that Illinois could not make a shot, in the grand scheme of things.

Despite lambasting Underwood for most of this column, his offensive scheme works. And, not just “sort of works.” It’s one of the best in the country.

The Illini’s offense sits at No. 6 in offensive efficiency on KenPom.

For all intents and purposes, that number should be higher. The sole reason it’s not is the poor shooting by the Illini at home.

NCAA Basketball: Nebraska at Illinois
Goode is shooting 38% from three, second on the team behind Hawkins.
Ron Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

In the last three conference home games, Illinois is shooting 26.1% (22-of-84) behind the arc. Points per shot: .79 points

The last three road games: 24-of-59 (40.7%). Points per shot: 1.22 points

In effect, the last three home games versus road games, Illinois is 54.4% more efficient beyond the arc away from home than in it.

With nine games remaining for Illinois in the 2024 season, here’s an overview of the Big Ten landscape the rest of way to the house.

Illinois is now 17-5 overall and 8-3 in the Big Ten, tied with Wisconsin for second place in the conference.

Purdue sits alone at the top at 10-2 courtesy of its Sunday road win in Madison. It’s going to be a tough task to catch the Boilers down the stretch. The schedule is light for Purdue and they already have a game in hand on the groups chasing them.

Syndication: Journal-Courier
Painter coaching against the Illini on Jan. 5 in West Lafayette.
Alex Martin/Journal and Courier / USA TODAY NETWORK

Illinois will likely have to win out to tie Purdue. There may be a crack in the door with an 8-1 finish, but that “one” cannot be a home loss to Purdue on March 5.

Please take The Scientific Poll.

Poll

What are the chances that Illinois wins the Big Ten?

This poll is closed

  • 1%
    100% - it’s a lock. Going off the sheet.
    (17 votes)
  • 7%
    75% - should be able to get a tie
    (77 votes)
  • 40%
    50% - Gonna need some help
    (395 votes)
  • 37%
    25% - Let’s get to the Sweet 16
    (373 votes)
  • 12%
    0% - Can’t lose to Maryland
    (121 votes)
983 votes total Vote Now

This is reinventing coaching. This is another overtime. This is the Big Ten.

This is Illinois basketball.