LOREN TATE: Illini players join Illini band cheerleaders as no…

Thursday’s Champaign News-Gazette stretched an image of the Braggin’ Rights trophy to 12 inches on page 1 of the sports section. On the front page was the UI band and cheerleaders’ decision not to brave the St. Louis weather.

It’s a BIG annual affair, right? rich in tradition. Social media is exploding. The game was sold out and, despite the wintry conditions, many people showed up.

But someone forgot to tell the Illini players.

With a nine-man rotation that includes four freshmen and three transfers, these Illini may not have learned how much we hate Missouri. Or maybe the Tigers were unrecognizable with – you know – a new coach and eight participants in their freshman semester there, while – you know – eight former Tigers are averaging double digits at schools like Arkansas, Saint Louis, Ball State, Wright State, etc .

Don’t be surprised by everything you’re seeing in basketball this season. It’s a hodgepodge of transfers. DeAndre Gholston, who scored the winning goal in Mizzou’s previous game, attended Kent State, Tallahassee Community College and Wisconsin-Milwaukee before joining coach Dennis Gates at Columbia.

Kobe Brown, star of Thursday’s game with 31 points, started at Texas A&M but became a Tiger back in 2019. So combine the transfer portal and the name-picture-like payouts and what do you get? upheaval! unpredictability! And for Illinois at this point: disappointment.

That’s right, the Illini were behind by 35 (74:39) after 28 minutes. It was an escape, a Mizzou laugh. And it showed Illini’s troubles bubbling up at the top since Texas’ impressive defeat in early December at Madison Square Garden.

There was concern even then as Illinois trailed 56-46 but caught up with clutch shots from Jayden Epps and Terrence Shannon rode to victory in overtime. Then came the 74-59 home loss to the seemingly untenable Jalen Pickett and Penn State, a narrow win over Alabama A&M, and then the pre-Christmas disaster in St. Louis.

Before you bang the negatives, be aware of the upcoming schedule. Lineup of the Big Ten couldn’t be easier, as after Bethune-Cookman Thursday, theIllini play on the road against Northwestern, Nebraska, Minnesota and Wisconsin while hosting Wisconsin, Michigan State, Indiana, Ohio State and Nebraska.

If that’s not a recipe for rerouting an 0-2 start, then what is?

— Poor Defense: Brad Underwood’s new all-switching system allowed for too many layups and too many open Treys. That was evident in the 28-16 away game in Maryland on Dec. 2, and even more so in Penn State’s first half with 47 points (Mizzou topped that with 51 points on Thursday). Efforts to use Dain Dainja as a post-up center (he had Illinois’ only field goals in a 14-minute span of the first half on Thursday) create additional problems on the defensive end.

— Erratic Shooting: Despite rumors to the contrary, this is not a good shooting team. Coleman Hawkins lost five of his first six longs in the opener against Eastern Illinois but has been 7-of-37 (19%) since then. He seems reluctant to shoot. Shannon’s 8-for-9 Trey shooting beat UCLA, but otherwise he’s a mixed 15 for 62 (24.2%). Matthew Mayer comes in strong from a slow start, but the 12-game team stats show 33.3% on three-pointers and a terrible 65.2% on free throws.

— Weak playmaking: They don’t help each other on an inconsistent halffield offense. The team had just three assists as the score hit 60-33 on Thursday. Starter RJ Melendez has seven assists in 12 games…Mayer has 14…Epps 16, averaging nearly 25 minutes. Starting point Skyy Clark has 25. Hawkins, who acts as a points forward, has 46 assists but has five turnovers in the first 10 minutes on Thursday, his fifth game with at least five errors.

We really don’t know what’s happening internally.

Explosions during time-outs and post-game interviews are signs of emotional insecurity in the ranks. Captains can be nominated, but leaders must of course come from within, not forced. Mayer’s comments indicate his new environment is more difficult to navigate than it was with Scott Drew at Baylor, and Skyy Clark is clearly struggling.

The Illini have at times played well enough to reverse that, and January’s schedule presents an opportunity for a conference that, with the exception of Purdue, has suffered a sharp decline since last December.

And who knows, maybe Luke Goode and/or Zach Perrin can give the team a boost in another month or so.

Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette in Champaign. He can be reached at ltate@news-gazette.com

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