CHAMPAIGN — It was practice that made for a near-perfect performance in the first half of Illinois’ Braggin’ Rights victory over Missouri and coach Brad Underwood hopes it’s practice that carries his team Saturday and on into the resumption of Big Ten play.
The next challenge arrives when Illinois takes on Grand Canyon, which won 22 games last season and is off to a 10-4 start for its coach, former Phoenix Suns all-star guard Dan Majerle.
After struggling with a schedule that presented a number of games with just one day of preparation time, Illinois has finally reached a stretch that allows for more concentrated time in the practice gym. Underwood said Friday that’s proving to be a key to his team’s improvement.
“It’s been an unbelievable blessing and was much needed,” Underwood said. “There is no substitute for practice. Sometimes as a coach you feel like there are not enough hours in the day. When it’s Christmas break, I tell our players it’s a time to act like a professional. With no academics, we can be in the gym as much as we want.”
And that’s exactly what Underwood has done since his team returned to work on Dec. 26, three days after building a 20-point first-half lead and holding off Missouri, 70-64.
“The other morning we practiced two hours on nothing but offense," Underwood said. "Then in the afternoon we went two hours on only defense. Just fundamentals. This is helping us.”
It also appears to help that Underwood is an unrelenting taskmaster who has insisted on teaching his team better habits. He keeps a treadmill parked in the corner of the practice gym and if a player messes up, his legs get extra exercise.
“When they make mistakes, they get on the treadmill and run. We have to demand it. I want our practices to be harder than games,” Underwood said.
Underwood hopes to see more of what he learned in the Missouri victory.
“The first half we were as dialed on defense as I’ve seen this group,” he said. “We were flying around. We added a couple of wrinkles that week and we handled that. That’s big for this group.
“Mark Alstork’s defense was unbelievable.”
The review of the Missouri game wasn’t all glowing.
“We still have to get better on offense. We missed 12 layups,” said Underwood, who listed a number of other breakdowns, most of which occurred in the second half.
He hopes to see a more complete performance against Grand Canyon.
“This is a very good basketball team that’s coming in here,” Underwood said. “This is an NCAA Tournament-caliber team and we’ll have to play awfully well.”
Playing well lately has been guard Trent Frazier. The current Big Ten Freshman of the Week is averaging 17.8 points, 3.0 steals and is shooting 43.5 percent from 3-point range over the last four games.
He led Illinois with 22 points against Missouri.
“He was a few missed layups from really having an incredible night,” Underwood said. “Confidence is a wonderful thing and he’s playing with a lot of it.”