By Larry Smith -- IlliniGuys Staff
February 18, 2022
(Cover photo courtesy Chicago Tribune)
The Fighting Illini men's basketball team lands in East Lansing, Michigan in a few hours looking for...a Pizza Hut?
"Yeah, when I was in high school, that's where you would go to when you wanted to throw down", says Illini head coach Brad Underwood. "We'd line up, throw the car lights and have some fun."
"It was never good when Mom woke you up the next morning and asked 'what happened?'"
Underwood is one of the best basketball coaches in the country, but fight is what he's not seeing from his 12th ranked Illini right now as they travel to face #19 Michigan State Saturday (11am, ESPN) in a rematch of the 56-55 Illinois victory last month in Champaign. He's looking not so much for pizza, but for some bumps and bruises - and passion! - along with some wins.
"We haven't had energy in the last three games. Purdue, Northwestern, and now (Rutgers). It hurts my soul after the Rutgers game to have them feel like they played harder than us...to have a team not play with energy. It pisses me off."
It's no coincidence that Illinois has lost two of those three games and needed a late rally to stave off Northwestern last Sunday at State Farm Center after the Wildcats took advantage of a flat Illini effort in the second half to pull off a 19-2 spurt to turn a runaway victory into a nail-biter.
Illinois is coming off a 70-59 loss at a Rutgers team that outhustled and outworked the Illini for 40 minutes, dominating the boards 46-28, a stat that BTN's play-by-play announcer Brandon Gaudin told the IlliniGuys Sports Spectacular radio show caught him by surprise.
"The way that they lost. To almost get doubled up on the glass," said Gaudin. "I would have thought, at the beginning of the year if you would have told me that that would have happened to Illinois at any juncture this season, I would have said no. So, the way that they lost - just getting out-toughed and Rutgers being so much more physical, that was the surprising nature of this loss"
"It's pretty much effort. Da'Monte (Williams) got seven rebounds in the last three games and in the three games before that he got 24. Go figure," said Underwood. "(Jacob Grandison's) not rebounding, we're getting nothing from our guards. I can do rebounding drills until the cows come home, but if we're not playing with the energy we need we're gonna get smacked.
"Kofi's not rebounding. (He) gets a double-double and he's satisfied with that. Kofi needs 25 rebounds. You gotta go chase balls."
Does this mean a change in personnel is coming Saturday? Maybe.
"I'm gonna play guys, I don't care if it's five guys at the rec center. We're going to fight. We've built a reputation based on fighting, based on our toughness, playing with an edge. We got punked. They took it to us.
"If I knew I wouldn't lose my job, I'd put 'em in football pads, tell (football coach Bret) Bielema to come over and hand the ball off to somebody and see if we can bowl somebody over. It's February. The game's so much about energy. You gotta bring it and it's as much mental as anything. Positive energy makes the ball go in. I'm a big believer in that. We can't run from a bad outing. In this league, you're going to get knocked down."
Underwood's Illini have won a Big Ten-best 18 road games over the past three years but knows there's no team in the league that's more physical than the Spartans, who literally slugged their way to an 81-72 victory in the Breslin Center a year ago, a street fight that saw All-American and eventual USA Today Player of the Year Ayo Dosunmu crumpled on the ground alte in the game thanks to an errant elbow by Michigan State reserve Mady Sissoko. Dosunmu's facial injury sidelined him for three games and arguably altered the Illini's season and hurt his chances for even more postseason accolades than what he received.
The Spartans have lost three of their last four games and the Illini expect a brawl on the court.
"(Spartans coach Tom Izzo) hasn't had his guys talk to reporters this week, so I'm sure they've had some spirited practices", said Underwood.
That said, not everything was bad about Wednesday.
"(Analytics show) with the shots taken in the Rutgers game, 92 percent of the time we would win the game. We went 0-for-13 from three (to start the game). You could take the worst shooter and put him in the gym and he'd hit 1-of-13. Give all the credit to Rutgers. They outfought us and deserved to win the game."
Senior guard Trent Frazier is 2-5 in his career against Michigan State and agrees the team needs to bring the effort but isn't worried about the missed shots.
"Jake's a great shooter. Da'Monte's a great shooter. I told them to just keep shooting the ball. You'll see some balls go in this week," said Frazier.
Underwood agrees. "(Alfonso) Plummer and Jake were in the gym after we got back from Rutgers until at least four in the morning. Good things will happen to those guys. You gotta keep shooting and you come out on the other side better."
But success tomorrow in East Lansing still comes down to one thing.
"If we don't play harder than Michigan State, we're not going to win."
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