Illinois basketball notes: 'Credit to Illinois'

Illinois basketball notes: 'Credit to Illinois'

CHAMPAIGN — Steve Forbes didn't want to make any excuses for what went down Saturday at State Farm Center.

He said as much at the end of his first postgame press conference comment.

But then the East Tennessee State coach was asked to explain just how exasperating it was for his Buccaneers to make the 542-mile trek from Johnson City, Tenn., to Champaign.

"That was a little bizarre," he began.

That's an understatement.

ETSU's travel troubles were documented by SportsCenter before Saturday's 1 p.m. tipoff against Illinois. The Illini won 73-55 when a clearly-tired bunch of Bucs struggled through the first half.

Things started well enough for ETSU on Friday afternoon.

The program flew from Johnson City to Atlanta, landing at 1:30 p.m.

So far, so good.

The next leg of the journey was Atlanta to Bloomington, but foggy conditions led to a delay.

"We tried to get Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer to come get us, but we couldn't," Forbes said. "So we were screwed."

Christmas spirit was not with the Bucs on this day. They stayed in an Atlanta airport for approximately five hours before hopping to Chicago's Midway International instead.

It was a stop Forbes wanted to avoid, based on past experience.

Arrival at Midway around 10 p.m. came with a lack of the team's luggage. It remained in Atlanta.

Then, the bus scheduled to pick them up broke down roughly 10 miles away from Midway.

At the end of it all, the Bucs lumbered into C-U around 3 a.m., and didn't get their bags — with uniforms inside — until 11:15 a.m.

But, again, no excuses from Forbes, who jokingly said he thinks Illinois leader Brad Underwood was responsible for the team's bus breakdown.

"I want to give all the credit to Illinois," Forbes said. "They really took us out of our offense in the first half. We're a better team than we showed (Saturday)."

* * * 

Underwood actually walked into Forbes' press event before its conclusion.

It allowed the two a moment to share some playful barbs.

They crossed paths while breaking into the business as junior-college coaches in Kansas, and then again when Underwood was a Western Illinois assistant and Forbes was an Illinois State staffer.

"We just kind of fought tooth and nail," Forbes said. "I think we kind of come from the old-school way."

Forbes made sure to leave the media room Saturday on a unique note.

"I worked for the most popular basketball coach in Illinois history, Bruce Pearl," said Forbes, referencing his time as a Tennessee assistant.

"That might get you shot," Underwood replied with a chuckle.

"Woo!" Forbes countered. "I'm going home."

* * * 

Aaron Jordan had an unusual statline in Saturday's triumph.

His shooting left plenty to be desired, though his 2-of-13 clip included a couple second-half threes that rimmed out.

By the same token, Jordan's intangibles were extremely valuable.

He snagged a game-high 10 rebounds, including nine in the first half. He racked up four assists and a steal as well, all while committing just two fouls.

"You need him on the floor. You don't (just) want him on the floor, you need him on the floor," Underwood said. "He's playing at a very high level this semester."

* * * 

Da'Monte Williams had his number called when Ayo Dosunmu was benched for being late to Saturday morning's Illini pregame activities.

He collected five points, three rebounds and a blocked shot while filling out more than 30 minutes of game time, second to only Trent Frazier among the Illinois roster.

But Williams' most noticeable moment Saturday was a concerning one.

On a screen play beyond the arc, just to the left of the Illini bench, Williams and ETSU guard Isaiah Tisdale became tied up and eventually fell to the hardwood at halfcourt.

After some scuffling, Williams rose to his feet and appeared ready to throw down, with a fiery look on his face.

Jordan came in for an unofficial assist, though, wrapping his arms around Williams and escorting him from the scrum.

Tisdale was assessed a flagrant-2 foul and ejected, just part of a rough afternoon for the Bucs' backcourt.

"I was asking my coaches what happened," Underwood said. "I was more worried about the call being incorrect."

* * * 

For fans fretting about the state of Illinois basketball, two staples of the program have upbeat messages.

Former Illini coach Lou Henson and one of his athletes, Deon Thomas, each expressed support for Underwood and his crew after taking in last weekend's 77-74 victory over UNLV.

Henson thinks it's too early to judge Underwood based on two items: fielding a bevy of new players and contesting a challenging schedule to this point of 2018-19.

"As far as I can tell, I think he's doing a good job," Henson said of Underwood. "It's just going to take some time to get it worked out.

"But I think we're getting better, and maybe for the Big Ten, maybe ready to play a little bit better basketball."

Both Henson and Thomas were up close and personal during the triumph against the Rebels. Henson was courtside with wife Mary, while Thomas was doing television analyst work just a few seats away.

When Thomas wasn't trying to pronounce Giorgi Bezhanishvili's last name — he's got it down pat, by the way — for a national audience, he was left impressed by this batch of Illini.

"Let me start off by saying this: I think Coach Underwood is doing a really good job," Thomas said. "Brad Underwood has to change a culture. He has to bring in the players to fit the style of play.

"He's still teaching the players how to play the style of play, and they have to learn how to play that style because not too many people play that way in high school."

Thomas implores Illinois rooters, despite not having seen their team in the NCAA tournament since 2013, to be patient with the second-year boss Underwood.

"We have high expectations because we've been such a great program for so long," Thomas said, "that we want to be back there, like, yesterday. And it's not possible."