De La Rosa cleared for contact

De La Rosa cleared for contact

CHAMPAIGN — Adonis De La Rosa was cleared for contact this week, and he was on the court for Tuesday’s practice at State Farm Center as Illinois continues to prep for Thursday’s 7 p.m. season opener against Evansville.

Now, cleared for full contact doesn’t mean De La Rosa will play against the Purple Aces. The 7-footer is still a little removed from his return to the court. But the Kent State graduate transfer is at least a step closer.

“He made a post move (Tuesday) and wiped out the whole lane and everybody that was in it,” Illinois coach Brad Underwood said. “That’s an encouraging sign. He’s day-to-day, but he’s making progress. Now it’s about putting him out there when he’s successful and not laboring and getting his conditioning back under him and taking some hits and doing some of that. He’s making progress.”

No De La Rosa means Illinois will turn to freshman Giorgi Bezhanishvili to match up with Evansville big man Dainius Chatkevicius. The 6-9, 240-pound senior forward is one of the Purple Aces’ few veteran players and is coming off a 17-point, eight-rebound performance — in just 17 minutes — during Evansville’s 83-61 exhibition win against Division II New Mexico Highlands this past Saturday.

“He’s going to find somebody that’s just as strong as him,” Underwood said about Bezhanishvili’s matchup with Chatkevicius. “He hasn’t seen that in practice every day except the last two days when he’s gone against (De La Rosa). Those will be two slugs that will just be bashing into each other.”

The key for Bezhanishvili in that matchup? Actually being on the court. The Illini freshman battled foul trouble in the exhibition game against Illinois Wesleyan and played just 14 minutes.

“We need Giorgi more than 14 minutes,” Underwood said. “He’s got to learn to control that emotion and not get lost in that. It’s an advantage, but it’s only an advantage if you allow it to be.”

Bezhanishvili’s second foul last Friday night was a double technical late in the first half with Illinois Wesleyan’s Brady Rose after Bezhanishvili declined to let go of the ball when Rose tied him up. While he went to the bench at that point, his teammates appreciated his energy and fire.

“Him not letting go of that ball?” Illinois senior guard Aaron Jordan said. “Yeah, it resulted in a tech, but his energy and presence is like, ‘I don’t care who you are. I don’t care it’s an exhibition against Illinois Wesleyan. I’m not letting go of this ball because it’s mine.’ Him having that attitude out there gives us energy. If you saw the whole bench standing up, we were ready. We’ve got his back.”

Harnessing that energy will keep Bezhanishvili on the court more. He’ll be able to do more than the nine points and four rebounds he had against the Titans.

“He brings a lot of energy,” Illinois sophomore guard Trent Frazier said. “The thing he needs to understand is how to control it. Sometimes he brings a little too much energy. ... He’s very competitive on the glass and can space out and shoot the three pretty well. That’s going to be helpful for us.”

The challenge for Bezhanishvili — and Underwood — is harnessing that energy without the Illini big man losing what makes him unique and valuable to the team.

“That’s the psychology of what I’m doing right now is getting him to understand that he’s more valuable on the court to his teammates and to our success than he is sometimes having an emotion where he makes a three and is blowing kisses to the crowd or getting frustrated with a call,” Underwood said. “He’s got to play through that, and he will. We do a lot of talking to him about that.”