Up-and-down Illini men's basketball team still on track for another trip to March Madness
There have been some impressive highs.
In early December, Illinois took down No. 2 Texas in an overtime thriller at Madison Square Garden.
In late November, a furious rally carried the Illini to a win over No. 8 UCLA in Las Vegas.
There have been some languishing lows.
After beating the Longhorns in New York, Illinois' next game was a 74-59 home loss against Penn State.
The effort against the Nittany Lions did not sit well with Brad Underwood.
"Inexcusable," the Illini's head coach said. "I've known we were going to have nights like this, with an extremely young team. I think we're the second-youngest team in the Power Five. I can live with all of that, except for the complete lack of leadership and the complete lack of effort that was given today. Period.
"From the very first play that (Penn State) scored to the two practices before this game, completely unacceptable."
Underwood -- who can vent with the best of them -- had similar sentiments after Illinois was blown out (80-65) by Indiana at home last week.
It's been an up-and-down season for Illinois, without a doubt.
Given where they were coming in, the Fighting Illini (14-6, 5-4 in the Big Ten) are still in pretty good shape heading into Saturday afternoon's game at reeling Wisconsin.
"We have our hands full this year with a new team," Underwood said before the season tipped off. "We looked forward to the challenges that are presented."
In addition to losing center Kofi Cockburn, guard Trent Frazier and two other starters off last year's team, standout freshman Skyy Clark left the program in early January for personal reasons.
Illinois was impressive the last time out, a 69-60 home win over Ohio State on Tuesday.
With 11 games left before the Big Ten tournament at the United Center, the Illini are positioned to participate in March Madness for the third straight year.
Junior guard Terrence Shannon Jr. leads Illinois in scoring at 18 points per game, and the Texas Tech transfer and former Lincoln Park High School star is third in rebounds (5.6).
Two other transfers, former Baylor teammates Matthew Mayer and Dain Dainja, have also been big contributors.
Mayer is second in scoring with 10.6 points per game and Dainja is third at 10.1.
Holdover Coleman Hawkins has taken a big step up in his third season with the Illini.
Not only is the 6-foot-10 forward leading Illinois in rebounding, but Hawkins is No. 1 in assists.
"He's a great passer, one of the best passers I've ever played with," Shannon said.
Shannon and Hawkins are both projected to be second-round pick in the upcoming NBA draft.