Is it too much of an overreaction to say Illinois' loss to Marquette was the most embarrassing loss of the Brad Underwood era?
Was it more embarrassing than the ending against Loyola-Chicago in the second round of the NCAA Tournament in March?
Perhaps it is or it's not, but nonetheless, it is definitely more alarming than the loss to the Ramblers on the national stage in a win-or-go-home situation.
During Underwood's tenure, Illinois' expectations haven't been higher entering a season than this year. Last season, expectations were high, but no one expected the Illini to land a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament when the COVID season tipped off in November.
Entering 2021-22, preseason accolades have decorated the headlines about Illinois. Despite losing Ayo Dosunmu, one can argue this team's ceiling is at least making an Elite Eight appearance. And if that does not happen, it may feel like a bigger disappointment than last season's flop in March.
The point spread for Marquette and Illinois closed at eight points, with the Illini as the clear favorites. The Golden Eagles won outright (+275). If you're an Illini fan or bettor, you're left with no trust in this team moving forward.
Or so it seems.
Curbelo's Worst Game as a Collegiate Athlete
Monday marked Andre Curbelo's worst performance as an Illini and it's not close to any other game. The former Big Ten Sixth Man of the Year is transitioning to a new role as the lead guard alongside Trent Frazier. Dosunmu owned the role the last three seasons. Those are big shoes for anyone to replace. Curbelo should be able to transition into his new role, but it's easier said than done.
Curbelo finished with 11 points, three assists, and seven turnovers. Illinois as a team finished with 26 turnovers. The Illini could have played a mid-major school and lost if they committed that total. They simply need to take better care of the basketball.
Illinois scored one point in the final five minutes of the contest. Curbelo showed a lack of growth by not trusting his teammates in crucial situations. There were multiple possessions where the sophomore guard dribbled too much on half-court sets, leading to forced and unforced turnovers.
The thread below highlights many blunders from Curbelo in the last five minutes of Monday night's game.
A Learning Lesson for Illinois
How many times did Ayo Dosunmu bail out Illinois at the end of the games the last two seasons? There are too many to count. We all know he's now thriving with the Chicago Bulls and isn't coming back to Champaign.
Illinois will have to get those big shots from someone else. Curbelo can be that guy, and perhaps he will be moving forward. Who knows, he could thrive in that role once Kofi Cockburn returns next week.
However, at this moment, it remains to be seen. On one end of the spectrum, it's alarming. On the other end, fans will optimistically look at how Illinois got better as the year went on last season.
Remember, Illinois has played just three games.
Frazier had a costly turnover at the end of the game, which arguably was overshadowed by Curbelo's play. The turnover was very uncharacteristic for a fifth-year senior. Despite his fantastic game, his biggest mistake came at the worst moment.
We're on to Cincinnati
Illinois finished the game shooting 37.9 percent from the field and 63.6 percent from the free-throw line to go with their 26 turnovers. They shot themselves in the foot all night and were lucky to only lose by one point considering Marquette shot 18-for-31 from the free-throw line.
All that said, it will be very difficult for Illinois to play worse than they did in Milwaukee on Monday. They now have one week to prepare for Cincinnati, a team predicted to finish sixth in the American Athletic Conference. Like Marquette, the Bearcats are led by a first-year coach.
Wes Miller was formerly the head coach at UNC Greensboro, where he became the winningest coach in program history. He now takes on the task of rebuilding Cincinnati's basketball program. This should be another game in which Illinois will be heavily favored.
The Illini will welcome back Cockburn and look to stay undefeated at the State Farm Center.