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Collective effort keeping Illinois basketball on track

Jan. 14—CHAMPAIGN — Brad Underwood admits it was a strange feeling.

But as Michigan State mounted its second-half comeback on Thursday night at State Farm Center, taking the lead and extending it to six points, the Illinois men's basketball coach wasn't concerned.

That's life with a veteran roster. What's basically become a six-man rotation for the Illini boasts 24 combined seasons of college basketball experience. It's a far cry from the experience Underwood had a season prior. Losing a lead to the Spartans then would have been a worry.

"A year ago, I would have felt pretty uncomfortable," Underwood said. "This team kind of gives you that easy feeling. That we're OK. You know what you're getting with our roles, with our guys. They're consistent. They don't panic.

"We found a way in a game that really was kind of a choppy game for us. I didn't think we played exceptionally well at either end. You find a way. Experience and guys that understand their roles allowed that to happen."

That experience has also helped No. 10 Illinois (12-3, 3-1 Big Ten) maintain its consistent level of play in the wake of Terrence Shannon Jr.'s indefinite suspension. The Illini are 3-1 without their leading scorer heading into their 1 p.m. Sunday game against Maryland (10-6, 2-3) at State Farm Center.

Coleman Hawkins doesn't see much difference in Illinois without Shannon. Some things have changed, of course — the Illini are less of a transition threat without their leading scorer — but the foundation of their offense is the same. Find an exploitable matchup and hammer it.

"Anything that's working, we go to it," Hawkins said. "I think it just shows maturity. No one went out and took it like, 'Oh, I need to be the guy.' We still have the same routine. I saw people saying our season was cooked on Twitter. It's like a slap in the face.

"We go out and still practice the same way and practice hard. Everyone still does the same thing. It just shows maturity from us not listening to the people and going out and doing what we do well."

A significant talking point among the Illini following Shannon's suspension that started in late December while Shannon faces a charge of rape in Kansas was the fact no one player had to try and fill his shoes.

"We just had to do what we were doing a little better," Illinois guard Marcus Domask said. "Everybody kind of refocused their role."

Underwood is big on role identification. It's not immediate, and what's become constant roster turnover year after year creates new-look teams with new roles to fill every offseason.

Domask said this year's team started that process during the summer.

"Once practice starts, everybody starts to find their niche and just gets comfortable with what they do," the veteran guard said. "We see what each other is best at, and then we just play off each other."

Michigan State coach Tom Izzo praised Illinois guard Ty Rodgers for playing to his strengths in the Illini's 71-68 victory earlier this week. That Rodgers knew who he was as a player and didn't try to be something he wasn't.

Underwood sees a roster full of that kind of player.

"I think we're a team that doesn't have a lot of ego," the Illinois coach said. "Usually you have a roster full of guys that are, 'I'm a 5-man, but I want to be a 3-man. I'm a point guard, and I want to be a 2. I'm a 2 and I want to be a point.' Nobody cares. Everybody just wants to play basketball. That's the connectivity and the maturity. Nobody is trying to be something they're not, and everybody is trying to exceed at what they do well."

How Illinois has fared without Shannon has impressed Izzo. The dean of Big Ten basketball coaches said he felt like he had his team prepared to handle what Domask and Hawkins could do. Then Rodgers scored 12 first-half points to spark the Illini's early lead and wound up one of five players to score in double figures.

"You're not going to replace a guy like Shannon," Izzo said. "It's very hard to deal with that in the middle of the year. ... It's a tough deal to do what Brad's trying to do in the middle of the year, and he's doing a hell of a job."