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In many ways, the miracle of its 96-87 loss to Iowa Wednesday in the opening game of the Big Ten Conference Tournament was that Illinois somehow stayed so close.

Nearly every statistical metric said Illinois should have ended up in a bloody mess sprawled on a curb at Times Square waiting for the ambulance to arrive.

Illinois was outshot 56 percent to 48 percent, outrebounded 40-20 and destroyed at the free-throw line. The Hawkeyes hit 34 of 41 while Illinois managed 9 of 12.

Imagine if Illinois hadn’t made a season-best 14 3-pointers.

The good news is that when it comes time for Brad Underwood to show his first Illini team how they can become a much better second Illini team, he’ll only have to show them this one tape. It’s all there.

And he can show it to his assistant coaches, too, because it underscores the glaring personnel needs that must be obtained through recruiting.

I’m talking about more big, strong, angry brawlers who scrap for rebounds and get the at-the-rim stops this team never could manage.

I’m also talking about finding another Jordan Bohannon.

Iowa’s sophomore sharpshooter is what every basketball team is looking for. He’s a deadeye 3-point shooter who releases his shot before a defense knows what’s happening.

He made five 3-pointers and scored 29 points on Jan. 11 when Iowa beat Illinois in overtime. Then Wednesday he made six 3-pointers and scored 25.

In those two games, he went to the free-throw line 18 times, and he made all 18. He almost never misses a free throw, unless he does it on purpose, which he did Sunday in order to preserve the school record for consecutive free throws held by the late Hawkeye legend Chris Street.

That show of thoughtfulness makes Jordan Bohannon an Iowa legend, too.

I love Jordan Bohannon and want Illinois to find one. Consider that an assignment, coach Underwood.

Underwood’s defensive system is disruptive and forces more turnovers than any team in the Big Ten. It’s also vulnerable to back cuts and action near the rim. Illinois got burned that way too often this season, and since I do not expect the system to change, the personnel has to.

That’s another assignment, coach. Find rim protection or grow it. Greg Eboigbodin needs to step onto the court next November with 20 pounds of newfound muscle. And he needs two new enforcers standing with him, brass knuckles in hand.

It’s never fun to lose the Big Ten Tournament opener, and it’s a bummer not to play a single game in March.

But much of the growing pains this season were necessary. Much of the growth came late. And the loss to Iowa doesn’t change that.

Twenty wins next season. Take it to the bank.


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