CHAMPAIGN — Slowly, and perhaps temporarily, the arrow for Illini basketball is pointing up.
That it’s been trending that way for three straight games is a good sign, and there are reasons Illinois has won two of those games, including Tuesday night’s 91-60 romp past Rutgers.
The low point of this season seems to have come Jan. 19 when Illinois got blistered at Wisconsin, losing 75-50.
It was Illinois’ eighth straight Big Ten loss and the team’s most lopsided loss of the season. Until that game, Illinois’ other losses were by margins of 7, 4, 1, 7, 5, 10, 10, 7 and 1 points. Three of those losses were in overtime. Another ended on a buzzer-beating 3-pointer after the Illini had grabbed a late 2-point lead.
The recent reversal of fortune started three days after the Wisconsin loss when Illinois battled hard and lost 87-74 to No. 6 Michigan State.
But not until the next game, Jan. 24 against Indiana, did Illinois break through in conference play. The 73-71 victory over the Hoosiers wasn’t always pretty, but it was evidence that this group could win a close game. It lifted spirits.
Then came Tuesday’s blowout against Rutgers.
What has changed for the Illini? What’s going right now that was going wrong a few weeks ago?
Here are five possibilities:
1. The emergence of Kipper Nichols has given the Illini a more versatile offensive threat and helped space the floor for others. Nichols scored 27 in that loss to Michigan State, then has followed it with 12 points against Indiana and 19 against Rutgers, when he got his first start.
Suddenly having a player averaging 19.8 points a game is a big, big deal.
2. Trent Frazier continues to enjoy one of the better seasons by an Illini freshman. His 17 points against Rutgers raised his season average to 11.7 points per game. And that’s with only seven starts. Since he moved into the starting lineup, he’s averaging 16.3.
3. Maybe it was the players-only meeting before the Michigan State game. Maybe it was the feel-good mood from the victory over Indiana. Something seems to have given this team a greater togetherness. As Underwood said Tuesday, “At some point, you have to be tired of (losing), tired of talking about it. You have to take some action.”
4. Shots are falling. In losses to Nebraska and Wisconsin, Illinois hit a combined 4 of 32 3-pointers. In the most recent three games, the same team made 23 of 70. That’s not great, but it’s an improvement, and it seems to have made defenses play them more honestly. “When you have a point guard playing as well is Trent is playing and Leron (Black) is a factor and Kipper is stepping up and teams game-plan for Michael (Finke), there’s no excuse for not making shots,” Underwood said. “I believe in us as a team that can shoot but at some point, you have to man up and make them.”
5. Te’Jon Lucas’ return from suspension has had a positive impact. He sat for three games and was clearly in Underwood’s doghouse. But he appears to be a more determined teammate since returning, and he has given the Illini another proven ball-handler and defender, expanding this team’s limited depth.
None of this means the challenge is any easier Sunday when Illinois visits Ohio State at 11 a.m. The Buckeyes are the surprise team in the Big Ten with a 10-1 league record and No. 17 national ranking.
But for the first time since the calendar flipped to 2018, Illinois seems to be making headway. There will be time later to lament not having done that several weeks ago.