CHAMPAIGN — After an nine-day stretch that included two major wins, the Illinois men’s basketball team wraps up the week against Rutgers today.
The Scarlet Knights are 12-3 and 3-1 in the Big Ten and have won their last six games, a far cry from years past, and that is something Illinois coach Brad Underwood is real aware of.
“Rutgers is playing as well as anyone in the conference and they are about as deep as anyone in the conference,” Underwood said. “I think Myles Johnson is one of the most improved players around. They are physical and a good rebounding team and they cause matchup problems. They are going to play hard, because we beat them in overtime last year.
“A third of their points come in transition and Jacob Young is great in that. Also, it will be a scrum on the glass with two of the top rebounding teams in the conference, so we will have to do battle.”
What Underwood is worried about mostly is that the size of Rutgers can mean they can be put anywhere.
“They have big guards. Caleb McConnell had a great game against us last year and he is 6-foot-5-inches playing point guard,” Underwood said. “They have a young kid, (Paul) Mulcahy, that also is 6-5 and plays the point and they are a handsy team with that length. Harper is a guy that is 245-250 that is skilled and put him in a lot of ball screens. So they are basically position-less from 1-4.
Also, after the slower pace of Purdue and Wisconsin, the Scarlet Knights will bring a change of pace that Underwood welcomes.
“I think we always like to play fast when it is opportunistic,” Underwood said. “It becomes a game about field goal attempts as far as holding them to one shot ant taking the opportunity and we have to avoid turnovers. They will punish you on live ball turnovers. I expect it to be a different pace, but it is something that we work in practice.”
The Illini are 11-5 and 3-2 coming off wins against Purdue and on Wednesday against Wisconsin that broke a long losing streak to the Badgers.
“We had a lot of positives coming out of Madison. I didn’t think we did a great job in the first half and I don’t think we guarded the ball very well. In the second half, we became more active,” Underwood said. “It was great execution down the stretch. Ayo (Dosunmu) had three great assists that led to nine points, had a skip layup that froze a defender and then the step-back. Ayo was responsible for 14 points, but he made the right plays. Giorgi (Bezhanisvili) made a big defensive play without fouling and then Alan (Griffin) did a great job in snatching the last rebound. It is all you can ask on the road.”
The wins have built momentum that Underwood hopes can only go on.
“You want to build momentum and not be satisfied. Twenty games is a long seasons and you want to take every game for its face value,” Underwood said. “It was a great road win and big for our fans, and we have to build on that. There are no easy ones and hopefully we will be as good as we could be.”
Today’s game will be at 11 a.m. at the State Farm Center and the early start brings another challenge.
“The environment and culture helps and there is no doubt it energizes our guys., so we have to have everyone here tomorrow,” Underwood said. “It’s different, we don’t have a full-blown shootaround, but we will have a walkthrough.”
On Friday, legendary coach Lou Henson celebrated his 88th birthday and Underwood visited with him on Thursday.
If there is the epitome of a tough guy, it is coach,” Underwood said. “He was great yesterday and we had a great lunch. With coach, you are going to talk about ball and officiating. I hope I am as fortunate to be sharp and mentally tough as he is when I turn 88.”
The game will be shown on the Big Ten Network and broadcast on WDAN-AM 1490 and WDNL-FM 102.1.