DECATUR — There were grumbles and groans the night Illinois lost to Eastern Illinois in an exhibition basketball game.
But now — three-and-a-half weeks later — Illini coach Brad Underwood is most grateful for that trip to Charleston.
“That’s why we did it,” he said Monday as he prepared to take his team to Winston-Salem, N.C., to face Wake Forest Tuesday in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. It’s Illinois’ first road trip of the season, but thanks to that exhibition game, it won’t be the first time Illinois has played in a hostile, foreign gym. “We needed to create that atmosphere,” Underwood said.
Illinois also played a closed pre-season scrimmage at Vanderbilt and even though the public was not allowed to watch, Underwood said the team spent the night in Nashville and simulated the itinerary of a road trip.
Now it’s a step up in competition against a Wake Forest team that reached the NCAA Tournament last year but has struggled learning how to play without its 6-10 scoring star, John Collins.
Collins was an NBA first-round draft pick and Wake Forest is off to a 2-4 start without him.
“They’re a team driven by their guards,” Underwood said. “I say that but Doral Moore, at 7-1, 280 pounds, is a problem in the middle.
“They’re one of the best 3-point shooting teams in the country and they do it from multiple spots. We’ll have to be very good on our closeouts with high hands and activity.”
Each team benefits from production off its bench.
For Wake Forest, Keyshawn Woods began the year as a starter, but asked to come off the bench. That’s what he has been doing and is the Demon Deacons’ leading scorer at 17.0 points per game.
Illinois’s bench play has also been outstanding led by Kipper Nichols and Aaron Jordan.
Nichols is averaging 11.2 points and 4.5 rebounds in 16 minutes of action. Jordan is averaging 11.8 points and 4.3 rebounds in 17.7 minutes. And Jordan has made 15 of 23 3-pointers (65.2 percent), which leads the nation among players averaging 2.5 made 3s a game.
“Their productivity over 40 minutes is off the chart,” Underwood said. “Yet they are only playing half the game.
“I think they are comfortable doing it that way. They get to see the game unfold a little. I like it when we put in guys who can impact the game with productivity, not just effort. We’re coming in with firepower and I like that.”
Neither team has been tested against top-level competition.
Wake Forest has lost to Georgia Southern, Liberty, Drake and Houston. The only victories came against Quinnipiac and North Carolina-Greensboro.
For Underwood, it’s a chance to go up against Wake Forest coach Danny Manning, who Underwood has known since Manning was playing at Kansas and Underwood — a couple years older — was at Kansas State.
“He kicked my butt a whole bunch of times on the basketball court back in the 80s,” Underwood said. “He was one of the best players I ever played against.”
Manning and Kansas won the national title in 1988 and Manning went on to have a 15-year NBA career before entering coaching.
“We had a great relationship with their staff when Danny was (an assistant) at Kansas and I was at Kansas State,” Underwood said. “And we were in the same (NCAA) regional when he was (head coach) at Tulsa and I was at Stephen F. Austin. I have tremendous respect for him.”
Wake Forest won 19 games and reached the NCAA Tournament last year but lost to Bruce Weber and Kansas State in a “First Four” game in Dayton.
Tuesday night is the first of three big games for the Illini over the next six days.
Illinois plays its Big Ten Conference opener Friday night in Rosemont against Northwestern, then comes back to the State Farm Center Sunday to host Maryland.