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Now unranked, Illinois tries to right ship vs. Bethune-Cookman

Dec 22, 2022; St. Louis, Missouri, USA;  Illinois Fighting Illini head coach Brad Underwood reacts as he talks to guard Terrence Shannon Jr. (0) during the second half against the Missouri Tigers at Enterprise Center. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

For the first time since Jan. 6, Illinois will hit the court without being included in The Associated Press’ Top 25 rankings.

The Illini (8-4) dropped from No. 16 to among those teams also receiving votes after getting blasted last Thursday by Missouri. That means they’ve had a full week to figure things out before Thursday night’s home game against Bethune-Cookman (4-8), which doubles as the Illini’s final game before Big Ten play resumes Jan. 4 at Northwestern.

Head coach Brad Underwood gave his players four days off, then held four practices over two days as Illinois attempts a dramatic reboot that became necessary after a 15-point spanking at home from Penn State, a struggle to beat Alabama A&M and a 35-point deficit against Mizzou that ended as a 22-point loss.

“There’s a million factors of which I won’t hardly get into …” Underwood said. “But we’ve addressed some things from an analytics standpoint, a numerical standpoint that we have to address. You look at our numbers on the defensive side and we’re fantastic. We’re at an elite status in terms of what we’re doing in the half-court.

“We have one area where we’re really bad — and that’s transition D. And that is literally coming from what we do on the offensive side. We can’t turn the ball over like we’ve been turning it over. Those are mostly pick-6s. It’s really hard-to-guard layups and open 3s. Those stem from not running offense — and then you put up quick shots. We’re taking lots of shots with 18, 19, 20 (seconds) on the shot clock that are contested.”

Underwood promises there has been “a tweak or two” to try to change Illinois’ habits offensively.

“Move the ball,” Underwood said. “Share it. Our assist numbers have been low … our turnover rate has been astonishing. Mistakes are to the point now where guys may have to go to the bench and learn from mistakes that way.”

Coach Reggie Theus’ Bethune-Cookman squad has dropped four straight games, but leading scorer Marcus Garrett (14.0 points per game) hails from Chicago and he will have a good contingent on hand at the State Farm Center.

This will be the Wildcats’ third chance to beat a Big Ten team this season. They opened the year with a 31-point loss at Iowa and a 52-point defeat at Indiana — and haven’t played a Power 5 team since.

–Field Level Media