Eboigbodin getting stronger, but role with Illini still uncertain

Eboigbodin getting stronger, but role with Illini still uncertain

CHAMPAIGN — Uncertainty.

That's what Illinois coach Brad Underwood felt heading into the 2017-18 season when it came to Greg Eboigbodin. The freshman forward was long on potential but short on experience.

Given Illinois' depth issues — particularly in the frontcourt — it was a certainty he would have to play some role for the Illini. What that role would be and what kind of production Eboigbodin could deliver were the questions.

The early returns? Reason for more uncertainty.

Eboigbodin committed more than double the fouls (18) than points he scored (seven) in his first 15 games, which included DNPs in Illinois' Big Ten opener against Northwestern and the Braggin' Rights victory against Missouri. Then the calendar turned to 2018.

Eboigbodin played his best basketball of the season in early January, averaging 7.4 points and 4.8 rebounds and shooting 78.3 percent in the first five games of the new year. The 6-foot-9 Benin City, Nigeria, native didn't sustain that level of play into February, but it provided a brief look at what the future could be like for the Illini big man.

"I've shown little flashes," Eboigbodin said. "I really think I can do better than that. I just have to become consistent and play smart. That's what I struggled with last year. It's going to be different from last year."

Eboigbodin's growth came in incremental stages last season. That's the way it will continue given his basketball path began in earnest when he moved to the U.S. to attend high school at University of Detroit Jesuit.

Underwood knows he has to think long term, big picture when it comes to Eboigbodin's improvement.

"You see that athleticism, you see that and you keep wanting more and more because you know he's capable," Underwood said. "Yet, you have to not give him too much. You have to allow him to become good at something and can't just throw 10 things at him and say, 'OK we're going to give you a jump hook and we're going to give you an up-and-under and this and that.'

"All of a sudden he's in the game and it's like, 'Which one do I do?' There's a simplistic improvement cycle we're trying to make with him. It's not to overcomplicate things, but give him just enough to keep him improving and let him grow one step at a time, I guess, is the best way to put it."

The Illinois coaches simplified the game offensively for Eboigbodin in 2017-18, using his speed and ability to finish at the rim in a variety of pick-and-roll actions.

Getting him more comfortable offensively — particularly with his mid-range jumper — is part of the plan for next season.

"We've got to get him comfortable with him shooting that," Underwood said. "This year wasn't that year. There's more to Greg than what we've seen, and yet I'm proud of him because he did have moments.

"He's a guy that's proven in his past that he can block shots and rebound. We didn't see that Greg. We need to see that Greg."

One clear focus this spring that will remain a priority in the summer is gains in the weight room.

"Getting him another year in the weight room, where physically he doesn't feel challenged every game in the Big Ten, we'll see a different game," Underwood said.

Eboigbodin finished the season at 208 pounds. He wrapped up Illinois' spring work at about 222 pounds, and there's an end goal set of being at 230 when the 2018-19 season starts.

"Everything is good — basketball wise and in the weight room," Eboigbodin said. "Compared to last year the jump I've made since the end of the season is really big, and I'm really proud of that. (Strength and conditioning coach Adam Fletcher is) challenging me every day, and I think that's really big. I've been surprised with the stuff I've been doing in the weight room so far.

"I think (summer) is a really good time for us to work on our game and get stronger in the weight room. I want to do better than I did last year. I really want to embrace this opportunity for the summer to get stronger and work on the things I need to work on before the season starts."

Scott Richey can be reached at 217-351-5605, by email at srichey@news-gazette.com and on Twitter@srrichey.