CHAMPAIGN — After missing the last eight games because of a suspension, Illinois freshman Tevian Jones will be available Sunday.
Jones, a 6-foot-7 wing player, served an indefinite suspension from game activity for a violation of team rules. On Saturday, Illinois head coach Brad Underwood said Jones will be available when the Illini travel to Evanston at noon Sunday for a Big Ten game against Northwestern (BTN).
Jones hasn't played since Nov. 25 against Mississippi Valley State and is averaging 3.2 points and 1.7 rebounds in nine minutes per game.
“We’ve got to temper our expectations," Underwood said. "He hasn’t played in a few games, but he’s been very good in practice. It will be nice to finally be at full strength."
His return comes at the perfect time for the Illini (4-10) against a Northwestern (9-5) team with a jumbo-sized roster that features no starters shorter than 6-foot-6.
Jones has been able to practice and has often been in the gym early getting additional shots up. Underwood said the team will have to find a way to incorporate him back in the rotation. He's been on the scout team and has typically acted as the other team's top offensive player.
“He’s a talented kid," Underwood said. "He’s a good athlete. He’s been able to understand, conceptually, on the defensive side what we’re doing a little more and how he can affect the game. We need his size, we need his length and we need his speed. We’ll have to find a way to work him in the lineup."
Jones will add depth to the wing position for Illinois, a much-needed boost against the Wildcats and 6-7 senior Vic Law, who averages 17.9 points and 6 rebounds. Law is joined by Ryan Taylor, a grad transfer from Evansville, on the wing. Both are players who don’t need ball screens to get their shots, instead shooting over the top of their defender.
“They look to post everybody,” Underwood said. “They’re going to post our guards up, I would assume. They’ve done that with basically every opponent they’ve played.
“We’ve got to deal with that. It’s not something you see everyday. It’s a little unique, but it’s something they can do with that size.”
The other part of the game is the continued effort from Illinois to get freshman big man Giorgi Bezhanishvili the ball in the post, a place where he’s excelled.
Bezhanishvili had one of his best games of the season in Thursday’s loss to No. 21 Indiana, posting 18 points and seven rebounds. Even still, Underwood said his team missed opportunities to get Bezhanishvili the ball, “25 or 30” times.
“We didn’t throw him the ball. It’s really that simple,” Underwood said. “There are very few players in the country, especially freshmen, who have an understanding … Giorgi has a tremendous understanding in terms of seeing a play before it happens or a pass before it happens. He works for that position.”
But the light-hearted Bezhanishvili remains calm and confident.
“I talk to the guards all the time,” Bezhanishvili said. “It’s not always easy to pass the ball inside. In my age group back home, I played more outside and I know how hard it is to to pass it inside. I don’t really get at them. I just tell them, ‘OK, you missed me there.’ I don’t tell them, ‘You have to pass to me every time.’ It’s hard to do that. It’s not easy, I just try to tell them every time, ‘OK, pass when I’m open,’ but whatever happens, happens.”
Thursday’s challenge for Bezhanishvili circled around finding a way to score on and defend Indiana standout senior Juwan Morgan.
Sunday will post a new challenge, this time against Northwestern 6-8 big man Dererk Pardon and his 14.2 points and 8.4 rebounds per game. When Bezhanishvili has had the ball, and remained out of foul trouble, he’s shown the ability to score at will against some of the nation’s top post players.
“I don’t really want to sound any too confident or cocky or whatever, but I’m confident against any player,” Bezhanishvili said. “I know I can score the ball in the post anytime against any player. I don’t really look at the opponent, who we play or what player I’m playing against. I know I can play against any player.”
Underwood said he could deploy all three of his big men — Bezhanishvili, Samba Kane and Adonis De La Rosa, who played one of his best all-around games as an Illini against Indiana.
Each matchup against an established, veteran post player is a learning experience for Bezhanishvili, and will be again on Sunday as the Illini look to find their first conference win of the season and snap a three-game losing skid.