CHAMPAIGN — With slow starts continuing to haunt this Illini basketball season, it’s time to shake things up.
Coach Brad Underwood has tried gentle suggestions. He has appealed to player pride, asking his Illini basketball starters to take the floor prepared to defend the honor of their teammates.
He has asked them to generate a pre-game frenzy in the form of a spirited locker room dance.
He has reminded them there are precious few of these college basketball games and each one should be treated as a special opportunity. Don’t waste even one, he has warned.
But only on rare occasions has Illinois’ start-of-game approach worked. An exception was the Braggin’ Rights game, when Illinois sprinted to a 20-point halftime lead against Missouri. That now stands as an aberration
Wednesday it was back to the same old, same old.
When the game began in Minneapolis, for eight minutes the Golden Gophers flew around like a formation of fighter jets, rebounding, blocking shots, defending, making plays.
Illinois, on the other hand, got swallowed up in the fury and missed 18 of its first 19 shots. That Minnesota’s lead was only 17-2 eight minutes into the game was remarkable.
“It was like being taken to the woodshed,” Underwood said.
The Gophers’ lead grew to 20 points — 28-8 — before the Illini snapped out of their stupor and began to join the fight.
But as in losses to UNLV, Maryland and New Mexico State, energy expended to dig out of an early hole hurt the team’s chances of winning the game late.
To their credit, the Illini finally joined the fight, something they did not always do last season. The Minnesota lead was chopped to four points at 55-51 and was just five at 65-60 with less than four minutes to go.
But the Gophers made the winning plays down the stretch and won the game, 77-67.
There’s one more logical change to make in search of better starts and that’s to shake up the players who are on the floor at the jump ball.
Underwood may have already given that lineup a test run when for the start of the second half against Minnesota he sent out Leron Black, Michael Finke, Mark Smith, Trent Frazier and Da’Monte Williams.
Frazier and Williams replaced Te’Jon Lucas and Mark Alstork.
Given the current state of affairs, that’s a lineup that makes sense. And since Underwood substitutes frequently, it would hardly exile Lucas or Alstork to purgatory.
Frazier is the better option at point guard and has been for some time. Against the Gophers, he got the bulk of the playing time there, although Underwood has been experimenting with Mark Smith at the point as well.
Frazier played 25 minutes and had 12 points, six assists and one turnover. Having a scoring option at the point is appealing.
It’s Williams who has earned this chance with play that is surprisingly steady.
The surprise is how quickly he has adjusted to college basketball, considering that he missed nearly all of his senior season at Peoria Manual with a serious knee injury. There was a time when it was uncertain if he’d even play this season. But not only has he played, he is perhaps the team’s steadiest player, and maybe steady helps bring about a more desirable start.
“It’s amazing,” Underwood said after the Minnesota game. “We looked so good offensively in practice and then we get in a game and it’s almost pure panic.”
Two other matters: Freshman Greg Eboigbodin, a non-factor in many early games, has played his way past Kipper Nichols into the big-man rotation. He had a career game against the Gophers with nine points and three rebounds.
Nichols, who the Illini need to be good, played seven minutes in the first half and not a minute in the second half. He’s now in Underwood’s doghouse.
Illinois stayed in Minneapolis and went to a movie there Thursday night. The team will practice again Friday morning before boarding a flight to Ann Arbor, Mich.
Who Underwood trots out there at 11 a.m., Saturday remains to be seen, but it won’t be the same five who have started most of the games.
“We’re not going to stick with the same group,” Underwood promised. “We’ve got to continue to grow.”