CHAMPAIGN – If last Friday’s exhibition loss at Eastern Illinois was a teaching moment, Brad Underwood has been a hard-driving professor this week.
“Practice has been intense,” junior Michael Finke said.
On Friday, Underwood and his first Illini team will find out just how much they have learned.
Illinois opens the season by playing host to Southern University tonight, the first of seven November non-conference games that set the stage for the earlier-than-usual Dec. 1 Big Ten opener against Northwestern.
For Underwood, who has been a college coach for 30 years, it’s a time to deal with his own opening night nerves.
“I cannot wait to walk out onto that court for the first time,” he said. “I can promise you I’ll have goose bumps. I get much more nervous as a coach than I did as a player.”
Underwood is grateful to begin a season that he believes will see his team gradually grow and improve.
“We have been battling each other now for 42 days and roughly 30 practices,” he said. “Are we a finished product now? We are not. We’re a team that will be better in a month than we are now.
“I still haven’t decided on a starting lineup yet. More than likely I’ll have a freshman or two in that group and that excites me.”
Underwood has used last Friday’s exhibition as a reminder of what can happen when there’s a letdown.
“We can correct the Xs and Os, but the one thing that bothered me the most was simple hustle plays like taking charges. We bailed out of five charges. Those are little things but they completely change the outcome of games.
“It got too easy for us (early) the other night. With five minutes to go in the first half, they had 16 points. And we gave up, what, 80? There has to be some retention there on the defensive side. Practice this week was about correcting some things.”
Kipper Nichols, who had as strong first half against Eastern, said the loss should serve as motivation.
“That game didn’t sit well with us,” he said. “We learned that you can’t take anything for granted. Practice has been tough this week but we have a totally different mindset. Our mindset is that we have to take care of business.”
Point guard Te’Jon Lucas, whom Underwood said has had a good week of practice, said defense has been an emphasis.
“Defensively, we really didn’t guard anyone out there. They were just shooting 3s, the crowd (cheered) and the shots went it. At one time coach said they were shooting 85 percent.
“Closing out and closing out with a high hand is a big difference. Their percentage goes down with the high hand.”
Southern was 15-18 last season and has a new interim head coach. He’s Morris Scott, the former assistant coach and associate head coach who was moved up when former head coach Roman Banks took over as the school’s athletic director.
“They’re a team that is very capable of scoring a lot of points,” Underwood said.
Among the players featured prominently in the scouting report are guards Eddie Reese and Chris Thomas and forward Jared Sam, a 6-9, 230-pound senior.
Southern was picked to finish second in the Southwestern Athletic Conference.