Can Illinois figure itself out in time for the heart of the Big Ten Conference schedule?
The answers might start to come Wednesday night when it makes the bus trip to Evanston, Ill., for a clash with Northwestern.
A team good enough to beat UCLA and Texas was also bad enough to lose at home to Penn State by 15 points and then be a no-show in the Braggin’ Rights game against Missouri, getting blown out 93-71.
The Fighting Illini (9-4, 0-2 Big Ten) tuned up for their stretch of conference games on Thursday night with an expected 85-52 home rout of Bethune-Cookman. Dain Dainja stuffed the stat sheet with 22 points, six rebounds, four steals and four blocked shots in his first start of the season.
Coach Brad Underwood, who at times has been critical of Illinois’ focus and practice habits, was pleased with the effort.
“I thought we had good focus — especially early,” he said. “Our week of practice helped prepare us to do that defensively.”
What they did was limit Bethune-Cookman to 20 percent shooting in the first half and 29.3 percent for the game while forcing 21 turnovers.
Meanwhile, Northwestern (10-3, 1-1) missed a chance to start 2-0 in conference play after dropping a 73-57 decision at home Sunday night against Ohio State. The Wildcats simply couldn’t make shots, going 19 of 67 from the field and 9 of 31 on 3-pointers.
“I thought we were ready to play,” Northwestern coach Chris Collins said. “Offensively, our struggles really started to affect our defense, which is a human-nature thing.”
The Wildcats have been solid on the defensive end, allowing opponents to shoot just 36 percent on the season, but Ohio State made good on 46.4 percent of its field goal tries while earning a 46-37 advantage on the boards. That negated Chase Audige’s team-high 16 points.
Illinois leads the all-time series 144-42 and has won eight in a row.
–Field Level Media