CHAMPAIGN — When the University of Illinois changed basketball coaches last March, it was assumed guard Aaron Jordan might see it as the perfect time for a change of scenery.
Players transfer when they’re rotting on the bench and Aaron Jordan had become no more than a spectator.
He played in 23 of 31 games as a sophomore in 2016-17 and averaged exactly 1.0 points per game. He made eight baskets and one free throw. If he dreamed of becoming a star in 2015 when he arrived on campus with big dreams, those dreams were fading fast.
Shortly after John Groce was fired and Brad Underwood was hired, Ilinois held a rugged practice session during which players got a feel for the intensity their new coach would bring to the court.
Attending that day was Robert Jordan, the father of Aaron Jordan.
Another assumption followed: Robert and Aaron Jordan were looking for some kind of positive sign and they’d spell out their concerns to Underwood before making a decision about his future.
Turns out there were no concerns. And unlike teammate D.J. Williams, who transferred almost immediately, Jordan stayed put.
“There was never a trial and error period,” Jordan said Tuesday. “I’d already made up my mind to stay. They had a group of new guys coming in and I was excited about that. They had some good returning guys and I saw that as an opportunity.
“I couldn’t leave the people around here, the community, the campus, the Orange Krush.”
So Jordan stayed. And much to Underwood’s credit, he did not look at a second of Jordan’s game film from last season. Instead, he began to evaluate Jordan from scratch and was delighted to find a hungry, hard-working guard who did everything Underwood and his staff asked.
Fast forward nine games into this season and Jordan is the top story on this Illini team and one of the better ones in the country.
Out of nowhere he has emerged as Illinois’ ace in the hole. He leads the nation in 3-point shooting at 65.7 percent (23 of 35). Furthermore, once viewed exclusively as a 3-point shooting specialist, he has played well enough defensively to merit Underwood’s trust there, too.
Plus he leads the team in steals.
Jordan figures to once again be a key figure Wednesday when Illinois hosts Austin Peay at 7 p.m.
So far, Underwood has been bringing Jordan off the bench and playing him an average of 20 minutes per game. Underwood didn’t tip his hand regarding any lineup changes, but did say he’s thrilled with everything Jordan is doing.
“He excites me more for what he brings in personality and attitude than his play,” Underwood said. “And his play is tremendous. The one thing I’m going to quit doing is making offensive and defensive subs with him.”
Underwood has said he likes having firepower coming off the bench. “I’d rather have fewer minutes and more productivity than more minutes and less productivity,” he said.
“When he comes onto the court he impacts us emotionally. He has so much emotion and swagger and confidence and he’s talking out there. I love him for that. That’s special. That’s what basketball is about. That’s what big moments are about.”
Underwood credits Jordan’s hard work for paving the way to a breakthrough season. He said he frequently spots Jordan in the gym shooting right after the break of dawn.
“He’s quietly becoming a leader and that wasn’t something we saw coming," Underwood said.
His teammates have also noticed Jordan being comfortable in an expanded role.
Underwood said freshman guard Da’Monte Williams has been inspired to start showing up for Jordan’s extra early workout sessions.
“Da’Monte has now latched onto A.J.,” Underwood said. “There’s a nice trend going there between those two.”
Jordan admits he was surprised when Williams first asked if he could join him for the early-morning gym sessions. “Now he texts me every night to find out when to meet the next morning,” Jordan said.
Two other freshmen — Mark Smith and Gregory Eboigbodin — have also started turning up.
When a player grabs national attention for his shot-making, he inevitably shows up on the top line of an opponent’s scouting report. Sure enough, Jordan said he is now seeing increased defensive attention.
“When I run down the court now, they say, ‘Shooter, shooter,’ from their bench. But that gives opportunities to my teammates," Jordan said.
Underwood said Austin Peay will mirror Illinois’ style in many ways.
“They play the same kind of defense we do,” he said. “They are extremely physical. They don’t have tremendous size but they have guys who look like defensive ends.
“We’re between eighth and 10th in the country in forcing turnovers and they’re ahead of us.”