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Notes: 'Connected' Illini post second straight rout

Jan. 3—CHAMPAIGN — Brad Underwood can't find any other word that fits his team's chemistry than "connected."

It's a word the Illinois coach has used repeatedly in the last week. Mostly in relation to how the Illini have handled losing an All-Big Ten guard — and potential All-American — like Terrence Shannon Jr. in the wake of his suspension for the rape charge he faces in Lawrence, Kan.

Shannon's arrest and suspension could have derailed what Illinois built through the first two months of the season. A steady climb up the Associated Press Top 25. Status as a true challenger to Purdue for a Big Ten title.

Losing Shannon could have squashed those November and December accomplishments. Instead, the Illini thrashed Fairleigh Dickinson in the first game after Shannon was suspended and followed that with more of the same in Tuesday's 96-66 Big Ten blowout of Northwestern.

"They're very connected," Underwood said. "I keep going back to that. I don't know what other word to use. They have tremendous desire and passion, and then they all believe in their abilities. It's a tribute to them."

Underwood's usage of "connected" has trickled down to his players. Both Justin Harmon and Marcus Domask used that to describe the dynamic of this particular Illinois team.

"We're locked in every day in practice," Harmon said. "Love having fun with each other. And we all have the same goal to win."

Domask, who scored a game-high 32 points in the win against the Wildcats, expressed a similar sentiment.

"It's just fun," he said. "We enjoy being around each other. It's not you see each other in practice, and that's when you see each other. We hang out with each other. We have fun with each other. We joke around. The locker room is fun, and I think that just carries over to the court. You see the joy we play with. We love making plays for each other, and it's just contagious. It spreads."

Underwood credits Illinois' trip to Spain for that level of connectedness. The basketball was important — a first look at what these Illini might be on the court — but it was only a small part of the trip. The time together meant more, and Underwood called it money well spent.

"I pay attention to literally everything that involves our players," the Illinois coach said. "Who hangs out. How they hang out. Are there little cliques? You start doing that right away. It has been remarkable — just remarkable — how this group, as a whole, hangs out.

"They just all fit in. ... I can't explain it. They all, not on (the court), but off it, care about each other."

***

Harmon occupied a more prominent place on Northwestern's scouting report after making four three-pointers and scoring a season-high 18 points in Friday's win against Fairleigh Dickinson. That didn't mean much in terms of slowing down the veteran guard, who again knocked down four three-pointers against Northwestern and set a new season-high for the second straight game with 20 points in the win against the Wildcats.

"You knew he was coming in hot," Northwestern coach Chris Collins said. "I just thought he did a good job. He was opportunistic. He got a couple drives to the basket and layups and made 4 of 5 from three and played solid D. He's just a good, veteran piece that's helping their depth. If he continues to play like that and you bring a guy like that off the bench, that's a real weapon to have."

Harmon's role has expanded in the wake of Shannon's suspension. The Utah Valley transfer played a season-high 29 minutes against Northwestern and was just as effective attacking the basket as he was launching from the perimeter making 7 of 11 shots for the game.

"I'm just calming down a lot and trusting my teammates that they're going to get me the ball in the right spot and then just making shots," Harmon said. "I really love my new role. It's just playing as hard as I can on the defensive end and taking what they give me on the offense end. I'm not really looking to score. I'm looking to be unselfish, help my teammates and make them better and win."

Underwood considers Harmon's success the last two games as a reward for the work he's put in all season, but particularly since Illinois returned from its holiday break. Simplifying his approach has been key.

"He's not trying to do too much," Underwood said. "You can try so hard to be a really good player, and sometimes it's just settling in to what the offense gives you and what we need you to do. Run really hard. Guard your tail off. The ball instinctively finds him a lot. Shoot open shots, and if they fly at you drive it. It's been that simple, but it just doesn't happen like that. It takes time."

***

Underwood stuck with his starters — and Harmon — Tuesday night. Four of Illinois' starters played at least 32 minutes. Foul trouble limited Ty Rodgers to just 20 minutes, which in turn meant more playing time for Harmon.

Riding that group deep into the game was purposeful. Underwood emptied the bench in two stages, sending freshmen Dra Gibbs-Lawhorn and Amani Hansberry into the game with 2 minutes, 43 seconds to play and walk-on guards AJ Redd and Max Williams with 45 seconds on the clock.

A late three-pointer by Harmon pushed Illinois' final lead to 30 points. It mattered. The NCAA's NET rankings take into account game results, strength of schedule, game location, net offensive and defensive efficiency, quality of wins and losses and ... scoring margin.

"I'm thinking about winning the game, but I think you would be foolish if you don't think about those things the way the system is set up," Underwood said about "I'm not trying to be unsporting. That never crosses my mind. ... But, yeah, (margin of victory) never leaves my mind."

***

Illinois made 62.5 percent of its shots to beat Northwestern. That stands as the second-most efficient offensive performance for the Illini in Big Ten play in the last decade. Illinois was only more effective in an 85-69 victory against Michigan at State Farm Center on Jan. 11, 2017, when it shot 64.2 percent from the field.

Like the Wolverines, the Wildcats had zero chance at a road win with Illinois that effective.

"It's one thing when you have some breakdowns and some miscommunication on things," Collins said. "Then they still have to make the shots. You get away, at times, with missed rotations when guys aren't shooting the ball as well. We paid for it. Our defense was not good, and that's an area we really have to address. We're not going to win any games if teams shoot 63 percent from the field. This league is just too good, and there's too many good players and coaches."

***

Three of Northwestern's eight offensive rebounds in Tuesday's game came on a single possession, with Nick Martinelli cutting Illinois' lead to 26-16 with 9:51 to play in the first half on a second (or fourth)-chance opportunity.

So while Collins lamented his team's lack of success winning 50/50 balls against the Illini, Underwood was mostly focused on that single possession that lingered as a disappointment. Even if Illinois ultimately wound up snagging more loose balls and making more hustle plays.

"That was one of the first comments I made at halftime," Underwood said about that triple offensive rebound possession for the Wildcats. "You always remember the ones you don't get. We talk about those things daily. Winning a possession like that is one, very deflating for your opponent, but it helps you win a game. Maybe in a two-possession game it's a difference maker. All that is is effort and want to and desire and wanting to win worse than your opponent. (Luke Goode's) great at that, and we've got a whole team of guys like that."