CHAMPAIGN — Brad Underwood yells. Illinois’ head basketball coach yells at practice, during games and even during timeouts. He yells when his team is going through a tough stretch and when his team is going through a smooth stretch.
Sometimes he just turns and yells at no one in particular.
But during the first four minutes of the second half Sunday, Underwood mostly watched. He might have even smiled at what happened on the way to Illinois’ 91-74 victory against Marshall at the State Farm Center.
“We showed signs of being the team we can be during the first four minutes of the second half today,” Underwood said with the look of satisfaction splashed across his face. “We had eight offensive rebounds in those first four minutes.
“We beat a good basketball team and I’m excited for our growth today.”
Growth. That’s what Underwood is yelling about early in his first season as Illinois’ head coach. He’s wanting to see this team grow — little by little — and carry that growth from one game to the next.
Because they played Friday night, he was particularly interested in seeing if the Illini (4-0) could digest a scouting report in 24 hours, one that tried to emphasize the nuances of a Marshall team that came in averaging more than 89 points a game.
The focal point of that scouting report was Marshall guards Jon Elmore and C.J. Burks.
Elmore was the leading scorer in Conference USA last season and through three games this year he had averaged 28.3 points. Burks was averaging 18.3.
If the Illini defense could make Elmore and Burks work for their points, that would constitute growth.
Underwood knew he’d learn quickly how locked in his defense was against these two skilled and clever scorers and he liked what he saw.
“Elmore and Burks committed 11 turnovers,” Underwood pointed out. “That’s a big number from two guys who are exceptional at what they do.
“We set a tone early. Mark Alstork was off the charts early defensively (against Elmore). Da’Monte (Williams) did a good job. Mark Smith, defensively, did a good job early on Burks.”
Elmore made just 2 of 11 shots and finished with 12 points, more than 16 below his average. Burks scored 12, six below his average.
Nichols finished with 17 points and 11 rebounds while Black had 17 points and 9 rebounds. Michael Finke, who made 3 of his 4 3-pointers, added 13 points as did Smith. And Trent Frazier scored 10.
The other number Underwood appreciated was six turnovers. That’s how many Illinois made against a Marshall team that used plenty of pressure.
“That was something we knew we had to improve on from the last game,” Black said. “We had to stay strong with the ball because we knew they would sit in that press the majority of the game.”
Illinois’ biggest lead of the game was 23 points, but when the play got a bit sloppy and lazy late, Underwood cranked up his vocal chords and started yelling again.
“You don’t want to know what he said,” Nichols said. “It might make you sad. He had a few choice words for us.”
Underwood doesn’t want Illinois repeating the mistake it made at the end of the Tennessee-Martin game. A 14-point lead with less than four minutes to go ended up being a nervous 3-point victory.
“We’ve got to learn to finish,” Underwood said. “We’ve got to learn to make free throws and play to the final horn. There’s no substitute for that.
“We get so few days to put on the uniform and play in front of our wonderful fans and to finish the game the right way. We take a lot of pride in working hard in practice and being everyday guys.
“It’s a winning mentality. I’m going to demand that. I expect that. We don’t play according to the score in terms of our effort. It has to be consistent every single game.”
Illinois has two games this week starting at 6 p.m., Wednesday when it hosts Augustana. Then at 6:30 p.m., Friday, Illinois will play North Carolina Central at the State Farm Center.