Underwood: “Our ceiling, we’re not even close to it” | Sports

LAS VEGAS – Losses generally drive Brad Underwood to despair. They’re eating away at the Illinois coach. Stay with him for years. (Cue the loss of the charity exhibition to Eastern Illinois).

Overall, Sunday’s 70-61 loss to Virginia in the Continental Tire Main Event championship game was just different enough to put Underwood in a more contemplative mood. Not exactly happy – the Illini lost a late lead, then the game – but what Underwood called “a pretty good place with what can be.”

The long-term potential of this Illinois team? Consider Underwood sold.

And that was the purpose of playing the Main Event. All four teams competed in the Associated Press top 25 quasi-tournament. Virginia and Baylor won national championships in 2019 and 2021, respectively, and UCLA was a Final Four team just two years ago. Illinois would be in a hurry to figure out where it stood in the broader landscape of college basketball.

“We’re pretty good,” Underwood said. “We’re going to be really good. We’re almost there. Our blanket, we’re not even close.”

That became clear on Sunday afternoon with the result. Virginia’s experience shined through all the way. Illinois went almost 4 minutes between shots made after Coleman Hawkins’ short turnaround jumper gave his team a 57-56 lead with 4:06 to play.

The next Illini mark was Skyy Clark’s late three-hand with 13 seconds on the clock. In between? Illinois kept sending Virginia to the free throw line, the Cavaliers made the most of them, finishing a 14-3 run to win the game.

“I think we were all just trying to make home run plays,” said Illinois junior forward Coleman Hawkins. “I don’t think we listened well. I think we were all late in doing our own thing. There might have been some charges against us – people’s heads weren’t focused on the right things – but at the end of the day I honestly couldn’t tell you what really happened. On the track it was only chaos. Much can be learned from this experience. We definitely need to clean up the late game execution.”

It was a different scenario than on Friday. Illinois ended its upset at UCLA by continuing to feed Terrence Shannon Jr. on his 29-point night. It was mainly an isolation game. Shannon’s offensive struggles on Sunday killed that option.

Something else for the Illini – and Underwood – to find out what’s next.

“I’m still learning eight new guys,” Underwood said. “I’m still learning, maybe Terrecne will have an evening off or someone will take him, where should I go? I’m learning just as much about this group in the heat of battle.

“But go hoop and play and compete and fight? We did that at a very, very high level in what could be called a Final Four caliber event. We cannot rest on our laurels now. We have to drive them and get better.”

The Main Event provided the right motivation to continue this process. Illinois (4-1) has Lindenwood next in a series of games against Syracuse (at home), Maryland (on the road) and Texas (in New York City).

“I think I learned that we’re with the best of them,” Hawkins said. “I think we can compete with anyone in the country. The way we use different parts and we can swap in multiple guys, we’re tough.”

Scott Richey is a reporter covering college basketball for The News-Gazette. His email address is [email protected] and you can follow him on Twitter (@srrichey).


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