'I know he's got my back'

'I know he's got my back'

CHAMPAIGN — Giorgi Bezhanishvili had two clear directives from Illinois coach Brad Underwood heading into Thursday night's game against Evansville.

Stay in line defensively. Rebound.

The first was to help him stay on the court more after playing just 14 minutes in the Illini's exhibition game against Illinois Wesleyan. The second will be the same every game considering he's the lone, fully healthy Illinois big man.

"Staying in line helps to not get fouls," Bezhanishvili said. "Basically I was staying in line, getting rebounds and not fouling. It naturally just happened. Hopefully I keep going like that — not fouling — and staying on the floor."

Bezanishvili didn't commit his first foul until 2 1 / 2 minutes into the second half. But he quickly picked up another after he was whistled for a technical.

"You know I talk a little bit," Bezhanishvili said. "I was talking — too much. I shouldn't have talked that much. The ref warned me to be quiet, but then I said another word I should have not said."

The reaction to Bezhanishvili's technical differed among Underwood, senior guard Aaron Jordan and fellow freshman Ayo Dosunmu.

"I don't know what he said, but he obviously said something," Underwood said, adding he was going to find out what that extra word was. "It's something we obviously can't do."

Jordan's response was what you'd expect from a veteran leader.

"There's a time and place for it with Giorgi, but he's a personality guy," Jordan said. "He plays hard. He brings that. A little chippiness out there is not going to hurt anybody. Definitely, he has to learn his boundaries, but we'll work with him on that."

Dosunmu? He loved it and compared Bezhanishvili to the Golden State Warriors' Draymond Green and former Chicago Bulls forward Dennis Rodman.

"At the end of the day, you always need somebody that you know has got your back — a bruiser," Dosunmu said. "I know Giorgi is there behind me 100 percent. I know he's got my back."

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While Bezhanishvili didn't exactly avoid foul trouble — the technical was unofficially his second after getting one in the exhibition game — he did come through on his second directive from the Illinois coaching staff. The 6-foot-9 freshman forward led the Illini with 10 rebounds (all in the first half) against Evansville on Thursday night.

"The last three practices coach has really pushed me hard, 'Giorgi you have to rebound. Giorgi you have to rebound. Giorgi you have to rebound,' " he said. "It was in my mind going into the game. The first thing I have to do is just rebound. I was aggressive on the glass. We needed that and it just happened."

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Jordan showed some passion in the final season opener of his Illinois career. The 6-5 guard went 5 of 8 from three-point range and scored a game-high 19 points. Each successive make fired him up a little more.

"It was great — just my teammates finding me, everybody playing together and everybody getting a little bit of the action," Jordan said. "Just being out there with those guys means everything to me. I love these guys and love this team."

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A knee injury Sunday in practice kept freshman guard Alan Griffin out of Thursday night's game. Freshman center Samba Kane didn't play after violating a team rule.

"Those guys will both be back," Underwood said.

The Illinois coaching staff is still working with Kane to shore up his defense. That's where they believe the 7-footer will help the most.

"I think we're still trying to get him more cohesive with our group on the defensive end," Underwood said. "That's an area he can really help us. It's probably not where I want it to be, but we're gaining ground on it."

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The more trips to the free throw line for Illinois, the merrier. At least in Underwood's estimation. A backcourt full of players able to attack the rim — and draw contact doing so — makes getting to the line with a little more frequency doable for the Illini.

Andres Feliz was in the game for just more than 1 minute when he attacked the basket off the dribble and drew his first foul. The nature of their rout and three-point shooting against Evansville benefitted the Illini.

"We need those guys to stay assertive, getting downhill," Underwood said. "I think we see that every single day from Dre. He's a ton downhill."

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Feliz might be Illinois' sixth man in terms of the rotation, but the junior guard's importance to the Illini can't be shortchanged. His veteran presence in an otherwise fairly young backcourt brings some stability.

"I think Andres is turning into the quarterback," Underwood said. "We can look at his points, and we can look at how efficient he is. He's been that almost every single day in practice. I think the one thing I'm excited about is he's starting to take charge. He's asking the right questions. He's asking where everybody should be. That's a real positive trait because that's something that will just benefit our team."

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The Illini entered the start of the 2018-19 season with optimism. It was an honest assessment of how they felt about the team, but also necessary, according to Jordan.

"You always have to have that no matter what," Jordan said. "Adversity is going to hit. Things are going to happen. It's a long season. It's a tough season. Guys don't know that yet, but they'll find out quickly. No matter what, I'll be there to talk to them and stay positive.

"It's real now. No matter who's in front of us — season opener, exhibition, scrimmages, playing pick up — it doesn't matter. Every game should be taken serious, especially with us and how young our guys are. The experience they're about to receive is something that's going to pay off in the long run."

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The official start of the season wasn't just exciting for the Illinois players. Underwood was feeling it, too. Mostly because he has a grasph for his team's potential as the season progresses.

"We talk about growth a lot in our program," Underwood said. "I've said it many times. I think this team will continue to grow. We'll be a team that's better in December than November, yet we've got to have a starting point. We've got to find out. We're going to do that against some of the best teams in the country.

"Not that it's not a gradual learning curve. This is a pretty steep learning curve with this schedule, but this group's up to the challenge. I think we're excited about that and excited for the opportunity to go play. That's why they all do this. That's why they spend so much time working in the weight room and so much time in individual workouts. This group enjoys competing and has fun that way."

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Illinois offered nearly 60 players in the Class of 2019. Of that group, just more than a dozen have yet to commit. Of those still undecided players, the Illini remain in the mix for maybe a handful.

That's why new names keep popping up on the Illinois recruiting board. The latest in the 2019 class? Three-star wing Tristian Enaruna.

A native of the Netherlands, Enaruna currently plays at Wasatch Academy in Mt. Pleasant, Utah. The 6-foot-8, 180-pound wing is ranked as the No. 170 player in the 2019 class by 247Sports. He holds other offers from Creighton and Texas Tech.

Illinois also dipped into the 2022 class at the end of October with an offer to 6-3 point guard Rodney Rice. The Clinton, Md., native is Illinois' first offer in the 2022 class, and the Illini have also offered eight players in the 2021 class.