PHOENIX — NCAA Tournament thoughts were on the minds of every Illinois Fighting Illini basketball fan before the season started.
Tuesday’s hard-fought 78-70 triumph over Nicholls State in the home opener left several questions unanswered.
“We escaped,’’ said Illinois coach Brad Underwood. “It’s a great opportunity to learn from mistakes.’’
Underwood hopes this weekend’s trip to Arizona with games tonight against Grand Canyon at 8 p.m. (Central) and on Sunday against the nationally-ranked Arizona Wildcats will show the kind of progress tournament teams will make in November. Illinois and Florida State are the only Power-5 Conference teams with two non-conference road games in the first week of the season.
“Every year you try to challenge your team in the non-league games, whether it’s a back-to-back type deal like you play in the conference tournament or it’s a play one day, have a day off, play the next day, an NCAA postseason tournament vibe,” Underwood said. “You try to challenge your team to understand what those challenges are and how you mentally have to prepare. You try to do those things in November so when you see them in March late in the year, you’re accustomed to those quick turns.”
And he also pointed out this weekend’s trip is also similar conference road games as Illinois will be playing hostile environments at Grand Canyon and Arizona.
Actually, the toughest venue might be the GCU Arena tonight where they normally have 7,000 screaming fans creating a very difficult home-court advantage.
“I turned down the volume,’’ said Underwood about watching Grand Canyon’s loss to Davenport (82-73) on Tuesday night. “It was like watching an Euro League game with all the horns and the commotion.’’
Illinois pumped plenty of volume into Wednesday’s practice at the Ubben Practice Facility.
“You can’t let that bother you,’’ said Underwood. “You have to learn to communicate, talk and just play through all of that noise.
“They can really get going when Grand Canyon gets going in transition.’’
And while 23 turnovers was already a cause for concern, it takes on a great importance when playing an aggressive team like Grand Canyon.
“We just let guys take our ball on Tuesday,’’ Underwood said. “We can’t do that as we head into life on the road.’’
On the positive side, Underwood was pleased in the offensive games for Andres Feliz (23 points), Ayo Dosunmu (21) to go along with a double-double from 7-foot freshman center Kofi Cockburn with 10 points and 11 rebounds — sharing game-high honors with Feliz.
Grand Canyon is led by Carlos Johnson, who Underwood calls an “elite scorer” and 6-10 junior center Alessandor Lever.
Tonight’s game will tipoff at 8 p.m. (Central). It will be televised locally on WCIX-Ch. 49 and it can be heard locally on the Fighting Illini Sports Network including Danville stations WDAN-AM 1490 and WDNL-FM 102.1.