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Building Illinois Basketball

In this Dec. 2, 2018, photo, Illinois' Giorgi Bezhanishvili (15) and Da'Monte Williams, right, guard Nebraska's James Palmer Jr. during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game in Lincoln, Neb. Illinois second-year coach Brad Underwood has brought in eight newcomers to create the foundation for his program. The Illini have been competitive against a very difficult schedule but have won only two games. Illinois has missed the NCAA Tournament five straight years. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. • There’s a laundry list of things that Brad Underwood wasn’t happy with after Sunday’s loss at Nebraska.

The Illini turned the ball over too often — 15 times — fouled too frequently — Nebraska shot 30 free throws — and left Underwood, Illinois men’s basketball coach, as frustrated as he’s been with the offense.

If the Illini (2-6) want to snap a two-game losing streak — they’ve lost six of their last seven — they will have to be tougher in a “home game” at 6 p.m. Wednesday against No. 19 Ohio State at the United Center in Chicago.

“We’re going to have to be on our best offensively,” Underwood said. “We have to execute. We have to cut hard. We’ve been talking ad nauseam with our guys about toughness. We’re not tough enough. We are not tough enough. It’s a toughness to be disciplined enough to execute. We didn’t do that at Nebraska.

“We’ve got to understand how to be tough and disciplined enough that when we have to get a basket, that we can execute. We’ve had a good couple of days.”

Underwood says Ohio State (7-1) is the most physical team that Illinois will have seen to date, spearheaded by big man Kaleb Wesson in the post and a veteran point guard in C.J. Jackson.

“They’re a tough team,” senior Aaron Jordan said. “They execute on offense and defense. We’ve got to play our best game and match their toughness.”

Though there is some frustration — not discouragement — at times among the Illini, there’s not a lack of confidence with a Top 25 team immediately ahead in the schedule.

“They’re physical,” freshman guard Ayo Dosunmu said. “They’re a good team. At the end of the day we can compete with anybody. We’ve got to come out and play hard and play our game and not look for excuses.”

There were lessons learned against Nebraska in the Big Ten opener. Wednesday’s game against Ohio State is the second of two early-season Big Ten games before the Illini resume their non-conference schedule. Big Ten play for Illinois resumes on Jan. 3 at Indiana.

“I feel like we were playing good defensively, but we’ve got to play a little bit tougher and turn it up a notch,” Dosunmu said of what the team learned. “Big Ten play is a different animal than regular games. Teams are more physical, there are more scouts out and more information out. We have to get stronger and we have to get bigger and we have to get tough.”

Foul troubles plagued Illinois against Nebraska, and have hurt the Illini all season. Nebraska was in the bonus early and often and finished shooting 25 of 30 from the free-throw line, compared to 8 of 13 for the Illini.

On the season, opponents have shot 153 of 214 from the charity stripe this season, compared to 79 of 117 for Illinois.

“We’re working on it in practice, trying to move our feet more and keep our hands up because we know that’s one of our deficiencies as a team right now,” Dosunmu said. “We have to move our feet, keep our hands up and not foul as much.”

Illinois ranks 335th in the nation with 22.9 fouls per game. Conversely, Michigan is tops in the country, only fouling 13 times per contest.

“That’s really staying disciplined and playing hard,” Jordan said. “The harder you play, the more you won’t foul. Fouling is a mistake. When you react, if you’re in reacting mode all the time, you’re going to foul.”

Underwood wants his teams to play tough defense but also not make mistakes that send teams to the free-throw line.

“There’s an average of eight missed layups in every high major basketball game,” the coach pointed out. “We want teams to drive the ball and make them finish. We think it’s OK to try to get a steal and try to slap. We don’t teach that. We do quite the contrary. It’s discipline. We’re not there yet.”

The Illini rank near the bottom in the country in allowing players to play with two fouls, according to rankings. Underwood allows his players to play 6.7 percent of available minutes in the first half after picking up their second foul. The national average is 22.3 percent.

“That’s trust and it’s been a long time since I’ve trusted a guy, probably since Thomas Walkup (at Stephen F. Austin), to play with two,” Underwood said. “If you get a third one, you’re really hamstrung for the second half.”

It’s a trust factor, but even after freshman big man Giorgi Bezhanishvili went to the bench in the first half with his second foul against Nebraska, Underwood thought his team played well, and has seen a different version of graduate big man Adonis De La Rosa, who seems to be a natural fit against Ohio State’s Wesson.

“We’ve seen another Adonis this week,” Underwood added. “He’s a guy who can match with Wesson and they can slam bodies together. It was a tough matchup in Lincoln. They play a little smaller and a little more finesse. AD has been a lot better.”


When • Wednesday, 6 p.m.

Where • United Center, Chicago

TV/radio • Big Ten Network, KFNS (590 AM)

Records • Illinois 2-6, Ohio State 7-1

Of note • Wednesday marks the 53rd game the Illini will play at the United Center, dating back to the 1994-95 season. Illinois owns an all-time record of 37-15 (.712) there. Illinois will look to snap an 11-game losing streak against Top 25 teams. The last win against a ranked opponent was in the 2016 Big Ten Tournament against Iowa.