CHICAGO – For a second-straight year, it’s an early exit for his program at the Big Ten Tournament.

For a third time in the 2022-2023 season, they’ve lost to Penn State, each time in frustrating fashion.

Once again, inconsistency is keeping Illinois from finding a way to build sustained momentum over the last five months. Great NCAA Tournament resume-building victories were follow by forgettable defeats from November through March.

Unfortunately, one of the latter happened in the Illini’s first game of the Big Ten Tournament on Thursday at the United Center. Facing Penn State for a third time after getting swept in the regular season, Illinois surrendered a 17-4 run late in the second half and couldn’t recover.

The Nittany Lions’ 79-76 win knocks Brad Underwood’s team out of the Big Ten Tournament after just one game for the second-straight season. The third loss to Penn State drops Illinois’ overall record to 20-12, which thanks to their resume will be good enough to get in the tournament.

But the rampant inconsistency means the Illini are likely to face a lower seed, anywhere from No. 8 to perhaps even as low at No. 10.

Yet Underwood’s enthusiasm for the group remains despite the frustrating roller coaster of the season.

“I’m excited. This team can go as long and as far as they wanna be. We’ve proven that. I thought we played pretty hard tonight and, again, give Penn State credit. I was more them than it was us. You have those nights,” said Underwood when asked about his general thoughts heading toward the NCAA Tournament. “We started getting a little balance with Dain (Dainja), I thought he was terrific tonight. Then we started getting with Coleman (Hawkins) and Terrence (Shannon) and we get Matt (Meyer) going and we’ve gotten pretty good shots with Luke (Goode), we get RJ going, I think we’re in good shape.”

Those players along with the coach will have the challenge of trying to get Illinois past the second round of the tournament for the first time since 2005. A healthy amount of the team will be in the NCAA Tournament for the first time as a member of the Illini basketball team or in college basketball in general.

They’ll have to learn quickly if they hope to find their rhythm quickly one the bright lights of March really turn on.

“I think it’s finding a little bit of consistency. It’s finding a little bit of positive momentum,” said Underwood of what needs to happen for Illinois to have success in the NCAA Tournament. “It’s creating energy, it’s young guys that keep growing.” “