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Merry Christmas, Illini fans!

By Jeff Mayfield

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[December 23, 2013]  Going into this 2013-2014 basketball season, I tried to warn you faithful fans that this year's edition of the Fighting Illini was young, inexperienced and would likely take its lumps. For crying out loud, this team lost five seniors, most of its scoring and rebounding punch, and a lot of its veteran savvy. Anytime you're working multiple freshmen into any lineup, the possibility for meltdowns exists. I just wanted to temper the expectations as much as I could because usually our fans think we will never lose a game.

But after Saturday night's wild and woolly 65-64 nail-biting win over the No. 23 Missouri Tigers, maybe I undersold this team a bit. You have to like the way this team fights and competes. And when you think about it, they've never really been out of any game yet this season. In fact, it's not a stretch to think that maybe those goofy fans are correct: This team could be 13-0!

So, where do they go from here? Well, one thing is for sure: This team can't take anything for granted. You saw what can happen when Illinois lets down for even a couple of possessions. The losses at Georgia Tech and at Oregon, in games that I believe were winnable, hopefully have taught these guys some valuable lessons. So, I'm not going to say that any game is a given. However, if they do win Saturday versus UIC at the United Center, they will take an 11-2 record into conference play, which is not too shabby when you consider how young they really are.

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League play is gonna be an altogether different animal. I believe that this season is shaping up to be major trench warfare. And Illinois will have to survive and muster a decent start in spite of a brutal early Big Ten schedule. They play Wisconsin, Indiana, Michigan State and Ohio State in the first seven games... How do you like that to start your league tilts? Merry Christmas, Illini fans!

We'll be on the scene for some of the early league action, and we will give you an early report on how things will be shaping up.


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