Illinois Wake Forest Basketball

Aaron Jordan and the Illini travel to Rosemont for the Big Ten Conference opener against Northwestern tonight.

Associated Press

ROSEMONT – Brad Underwood has exactly one memory of basketball in the building now known as Allstate Arena.

It was 1994, his first season as an assistant coach at Western Illinois University. The old Mid-Continent Conference played its league championship tournament here when it was still called the Rosemont Horizon.

Underwood’s memory can’t be too pleasant. Western played one game, bumped into Wisconsin-Green Bay, and got pounded, 79-39. Ouch.

Illini fans have a much different memory of this building. The last time Illinois was here turned out to be one of the most thrilling and memorable games in the history of the program.

The date was March 26, 2005. Illinois came from 15 points down with four minutes to play to force overtime and when they held off Arizona 90-89, the Illini were going to the Final Four.

Much has changed in the years since and the only reason Illinois and Underwood are back in Rosemont for Friday's Big Ten opener is that Northwestern is a one-year tenant while its Welsh-Ryan Arena is being renovated.

Each team is still in the process of trying to establish an identity.

Northwestern coach Chris Collins is in his fifth year of what has proven to be a gradual transformation of the Wildcats into a nationally relevant program.

Last season was a breakthrough year. Northwestern made it to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in program history and knocked off Vanderbilt in its first tournament game.

The improvement was noted and rewarded when Northwestern was ranked No. 19 in the Associated Press national pre-season poll.

Since then, Northwestern has a 4-3 record and has fallen from the national rankings. The losses, though, have been to good teams. Texas Tech, Creighton and Georgia Tech have a combined record of 15-2.

Underwood doesn’t care what the record says.

“This is an excellent basketball team,” he said Thursday. “They are very good on the offensive end. They run a lot of different stuff and you can tell this is a veteran team.”

The Wildcats start three seniors and two juniors. “It all starts with Bryant McIntosh, who is having an outstanding year again,” Underwood said of their play-making guard.

As for the Illini, a 6-0 start was followed by a loss Tuesday at Wake Forest. There were plenty of things Underwood didn’t like, but some he did like as well.

“I talked to them at length about self-inflicted things that hurt us in that ball game,” he said. “They scored five points off our baseline out-of-bounds plays. We committed 12 fouls in the back court. There were 19 turnovers … . Those are things we can really control.”

Underwood was curious to see what kind of response his team gave him during practice Wednesday and he was pleased how it went.

“I loved our practice,” he said. “The one thing that keeps giving me feel-good moments is that with this team, we don’t have to beg them to come in and do extra work or watch film.”

A bright spot Tuesday was the continued strong play of guard Aaron Jordan, who came off the bench to score 20 points. He continues to be the top 3-point shooter in the country. He has made 19 of 29 (65.5 percent).

Based on his play, some coaches might promote Jordan to the starting lineup. But Underwood doesn’t think that way.

“I never worry about putting my best lineup on the court to start a game,” he said. “That’s the most overrated thing in the history of college basketball. I could care less who starts.

“One year I started our five best defenders. One year I started five upperclassmen. I don’t give two cents about who starts a game, although I won’t put five who don’t deserve it out there.

“But I want production off the bench. It’s ultimately about minutes and some guys are more comfortable coming off the bench. We talk about it as a staff because we want to find balance, but I don’t get consumed with who starts.”

After Friday's game, Illinois returns to the State Farm Center at 7 p.m., Sunday for another Big Ten game against Maryland.

Then the Illini play six more non-conference games to close out 2017 before resuming Big Ten play Jan. 3 at Minnesota.

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Executive Sports Editor

Executive Sports Editor for the Herald & Review

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