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Illinois enters Big Ten's second half still in contention

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CHAMPAIGN — Brad Underwood wasn't looking to make too much of Tuesday night's 87-75 win at Ohio State. It's part of the singular focus he has during every season.

"You know me," the Illinois men's basketball coach said. "I'm one game at a time, one day at a time."

But beating the Buckeyes by a dozen points on their home floor — apathetic environment from the Ohio State fans at Value City Arena notwithstanding — did have some meaning in the bigger picture of the Illinois season.

At the halfway point of the Big Ten schedule, Tuesday's win helped No. 14 Illinois (16-5, 7-3 Big Ten) keep pace with Big Ten frontrunners like No. 6 Wisconsin (16-4, 8-1) and No. 2 Purdue (20-2, 9-2). Road wins in conference play are critical for teams that believe themselves to be legitimate league title contenders.

Illinois, Wisconsin and Purdue are the only three Big Ten teams with at least three road wins in conference play.

It's an advantage the Illini partly gave up with their home loss to Maryland given neither the Boilermakers nor Badgers have taken a home loss in league play.

"Big Ten road wins mean a lot," Illinois guard Marcus Domask said. "It's not your average game."

Illinois' win at Ohio State also secured a third — and much-needed — Quad I win to further bolster its overall season résumé. A Quad I win that's barely holding and slipped closer to Quad II territory given the Buckeyes' precarious place in the NET rankings.

But the win got Illinois within one game of .500 in Quad I opportunities and 7-4 overall in Quad I and II games. Those are the games, particularly the former, the selection committee will look at the closest when it comes time to seed the NCAA tournament.

Illinois projects to have four more shots at a Quad I win this season with games at Michigan State on Feb. 10, at Wisconsin on March 2, home against Purdue on March 5 and at Iowa on March 10. There are also two games — home against Michigan on Feb. 13 and Minnesota on Feb. 28 — that fall into "can't-lose" territory in terms of avoiding another Quad III loss at State Farm Center.

But big-picture discussions aren't an early February priority for Underwood. He considered Tuesday's victory in Columbus, Ohio, a "quality win against a really good team."

That Illinois capped a stretch of 16 days without one off as part of a nine-game month with a win meant more to Underwood. The players felt the importance of the win in that way, too, despite the frenetic pace of January.

"I think it goes to show the maturity of this team," Illinois guard Ty Rodgers said. "We knew this was a huge game for us. We got through it, and I'm happy to know we ended this with a 'W.'"

That Illinois enters the back half of Big Ten play looking more like the team it was before Terrence Shannon Jr.'s suspension — at least in some ways — could be telling about how those final 10 games might go.

The Illini's defense hasn't recovered to where it was before Shannon's six-game suspension while he still faces a rape charge for an alleged incident in Lawrence, Kan., but games where Shannon and Domask each top 20 points with another double-digit scorer or two as a complement make Illinois tough to beat.

"I think it's not just (Shannon)," Underwood said about looking like the team that crushed Missouri 97-73 in the Braggin' Rights game on Dec. 22 before the bottom fell out a week later with Shannon's arrest and suspension. "It's the first time we've been whole in quite some time. Getting Amani (Hansberry) back. We've been without Nico (Moretti) for a long time. ... Obviously, Terrence is a guy that's a focal point of most opponents, but I think it's very comforting to me to know we've got the other guys as well I feel good about."

It's a group that weathered Shannon's absence with aplomb. Found a way to even be more efficient offensively. And is ready for the final stretch of Big Ten play.

"I think we've shown that we can fight through a lot," Domask said. "This team has gone through a lot already. Through all the ups and downs, I think that we've just shown we're a cohesive team. We stay together, and no matter what's going on, we're with each other and are going to fight for each other."