Gonzaga Illnois Basketball

Illinois head coach Brad Underwood reacts to an official's call in a game Monday against No. 3 Gonzaga in the Maui Invitational at Lahaina, Hawaii. The Illini finished up the tournament late Wednesday with an 83-74 loss to Xavier, finishing 0-3 in Hawaii and dropping to 1-4 overall.

LAHINA, Hawaii — Not very long ago, the University of Illinois had one of the elite basketball programs in the country.

Illinois had a string of eight straight NCAA Tournament appearances 2000-07 and the 2005 Fighting Illini spent more than three months as the top-rated team in the nation before losing the national championship game 75-70 to North Carolina in St. Louis.

But, that appears to be ancient history and the proof came at the 2018 Maui Jim Maui Invitational.

For the first time in program's history, Illinois, which won the 2012 Maui Invitational, lost all three game culminating with a 83-74 defeat at the hands of the Xavier Musketeers in the seventh-place game late Wednesday.

"The one thing that was very evident in this tournament — elite programs win,'' said second-year Illinois coach Brad Underwood. "Not good teams, elite programs.

"There is a reason that Gonzaga beat Duke today (89-87 in the championship game). They knew they were going to win. They have done it for 18 or 20 years.''

Actually the Maui Invitational field featured six NCAA Tournament teams from last year, exceptions were Illinois and Iowa State, and the Cyclones were in the tournament the six previous seasons, while the Illini have just one berth in the past seven years.

"One of the hardest challenges that we have to understand is the passion in which they play, the emotion and the togetherness. It's called the Zag way or the Zona way or the Duke way. We have to establish the Illini way,'' Underwood said. "Right now, the Illini way is not what I want it to be. Right now, we are going through those growing pains. There is a level of frustration and when you play frustrated, it's very hard to make it work.

"I don't fault their effort. I have to do a better job of helping these guys understand what this tournament was about.''

Underwood said that is his team is doing things in the game that it didn't do in practice.

"That's a sign of youth,'' he said. "It becomes frustrating for them. It's the first time that a lot of these guys have lost. They don't know how to react.''

Freshman Alan Griffin, who scored a career best 11 points in the loss to Iowa State on Tuesday, had a bad night against Xavier with just one point, one rebound and five turnovers.

"I'm not picking on Alan. He had a really good tournament. He had a coming out party this week. But three straight possessions in the second half, he blows his defensive coverage,'' Underwood said. "Our guys are screaming at him. It's frustrating and he becomes frustrated. It's my fault.

"I have to get these guys doing things in a more systematic way. And it becomes the Illini way. It's not just about this team, it's about establishing what our way is going to be for the next 10-15 years.''

Underwood acknowledged playing in a tournament with three of the top 10 teams and seven traditional NCAA Tournament teams probably wasn't the best scenario for Illinois, which fell to 1-4.

"To be very honest with you, this was probably too much for us right now,'' he said. "A lot of young players, a lot of new faces and yet, we had a chance to beat the best team in the country.''

In the opening round, Illinois trailed Gonzaga 80-78 with 30 seconds left. The Illini had a shot from sophomore guard Trent Frazier to take the lead, but it was off the mark. The Bulldogs made two free throws and got a breakaway dunk to claim an 84-78 victory.

"The way we responded hasn't been very good,'' said Underwood, who admitted that he knew there would be some struggles along the way.

"We are going to get there,'' he said. "We are doing some really good things and we have some really nice players. Understanding how to win is really, really hard when you haven't done it.

"But, we are going to get there. People, you have to believe us.''

Freshmen guard Ayo Dosunmu finished with a game-high 19 points in Wednesday's loss, while Frazier had 18 and senior Aaron Jordan had 16.

Illinois will look to snap a four-game losing streak on Sunday with a 1 p.m. contest against Mississippi Valley State at the State Farm Center.


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