ST. LOUIS — OK, so this won’t be an undefeated Illini basketball team this season.

Didn’t we pretty much know that?

And didn’t we know that despite an impressive 12-0 start, Illinois has been pulling rabbits from its hat without an elite point guard and without much muscle or scoring punch in the post?

In that regard, not much new was revealed in Saturday’s 82-73 loss to 12th-ranked Missouri at the Scottrade Center. We learned that Illinois will have a thin margin for error against the better teams. On nights when they shoot it well they can beat the likes of Gonzaga and Butler. But on nights when they don’t or can’t, the job will be difficult.

Losing to a very good, very athletic, very deep Missouri team does not signal the beginning of the end for the Illini. In fact, given what we heard from coach John Groce and his players after the game, it might be a very timely building block as Illinois faces Auburn next Saturday in Chicago before launching into Big Ten play.

It would have been discouraging to hear Groce say his team didn’t meet the threshold of intensity needed to compete in a Christmas-crazy building packed with 22,000-plus fans, many of whom stood and screamed for much of the game.

It would have been discouraging to hear Groce lament a poor shooting game and say that he was scrapping the green light mentality he has given his perimeter players.

And it would have been discouraging had players pointed fingers at the first sniff of defeat.

But none of that happened.

In fact, Groce sounded more convinced than ever that he has a group that will give him the kind of fight Illinois will need to battle its way through the treacherous Big Ten.

“I’m really proud of our effort and the toughness we showed in the second half,” Groce said. “It’s something to build on for sure.

“We’ll let them go home for Christmas and get them back on the 26th, get things in order and head to Chicago. The drum just keeps beating.

“We don’t allow one game to define us. We’re going to play 35-plus games. We want to continue to get better and my guys showed me something tonight. They showed me fight and they showed me great passion.”

Don’t be mislead, Groce wasn’t swimming in eggnog-induced denial. He knows that more than shooting the ball poorly, Illinois settled for too many poor shots. He knows his team is going to have a hard time slugging it out against big teams like Missouri, which has the third-best rebounding differential in the nation. And although he will skirt the subject, he knows Tracy Abrams and Brandon Paul are not elite-level point guards.

Groce is brutally honest about this team’s shortcomings, even if he doesn’t air them out in public. And that’s part of what these players like and respect about him.

In the past, you may recall, the coach would painfully pick through a players’ shortcomings simply because he had an uncontrollable habit of being honest.

Groce, on the other hand, will take the blame 100 times before he’ll throw it at the feet of his players.

So by praising the effort and fight, which were good, he’s simply waiting until the next practice to address better shot selection and more intense rebounding.

“I didn’t think our quality of 3-point shot tonight was great,” Groce said, noting that Illinois made 8 of 32.

“How do you get the best 3s? This isn’t brain surgery. You get them in transition, on kickouts, off post-touches, on drive-and-kick or on set plays that put them at a disadvantage. Tonight a lot of our 3s were not coming from those means. Our hearts and minds were in the right place, but we’re still learning to trust the system. We need to do that better.”

We know Groce covets an elite point guard and it remains a cornerstone of his recruiting efforts. He wants one like Missouri’s Phil Pressey, who has quickness, vision and a mentality that makes him rush at the basket over and over and over again.

He also needs more big athletes who can rebound and shoot the basketball. So he’s trying to bring those into the program, too.

And he’ll always be searching for dynamic scorers.

That’s why people in the St. Louis area were buzzing about the 39-point performance on Friday by Belleville East’s Malcolm Hill, who will be a freshman at Illinois next season.

Hill made 13 of 17 shots including three 3-pointers in his team’s wipeout of Alton.

It would have been nice for Illini Nation to strut the streets of St. Louis with a big old braggin’ rights smile Saturday night.

Instead, respect goes to Missouri, a very good team whose best basketball may be three months down the road.

I head home feeling just fine about Illinois’ prospects.

Groce wanted to meld this team with togetherness and toughness. I saw nothing to believe Illinois veered off course Saturday, despite the first loss of the season.|421-7983

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