LINCOLN, Neb. — After spending time as a color analyst for Arizona State basketball, the Phoenix Mercury and the Phoenix Suns, former Illini Eddie Johnson relished an opportunity to get back into college basketball, particularly the Big Ten.
“It’s fun. Just getting back to the Big Ten and to cover games has been good,” said Johnson, who called Tuesday’s game alongside Kevin Kugler for BTN. “I’ve been in the pro circuit for so long, and one of the things I wanted to do was get back to the place where I made my name.”
Johnson, whose 831 rebounds are fifth on Illinois' career list, played 17 seasons of professional basketball, most with the Suns. He still makes his home in Phoenix.
“It’s 75 degrees back home,” he said. “I have to channel my Chicago roots when I come back to the Midwest when it's cold like this.”
Like most around the country, Johnson was surprised with Illinois’ early-season success, though pleasantly from his point of view as an alum.
He’s also not shocked that Illinois has fallen on hard times in Big Ten play.
“I think as college basketball goes, teams have great nonconference records, but as you get into your conference you see where teams are as a unit. This Illinois team surprised us getting off to the tremendous start, and things were going well and flowing for them,” he said. “I knew, just looking at all the other Big Ten teams being ranked and what the schedule was going to be, that they might struggle. But they’ve had a good year, and I truly believe that if you’re truly meant to be a good team, you’ve got to go through the best to get there.”
Count Johnson among the supporters of first-year Illinois coach John Groce.
“I like the energy. With young men, they’re going to look at the coach and his approach of coming to work every day; that’s going to play a lot into their psyche,” Johnson said. “They’re young men, and they really haven’t figured it all out yet. They don’t know the level they can get their bodies to and their minds. If you have a coach that’s into that process and into giving them a lot of energy, I think it really helps.”
Tuesday’s game between the Illini and Cornhuskers pitted the coaches against one another who are newcomers to the Big Ten.
Tim Miles took over the Nebraska program after Doc Sadler was fired at the end of last season.
Miles, known for his nonstop sense of humor and tweeting from the halftime locker room, led Colorado State to the NCAA tournament last year for the first time in nine seasons.
Before five seasons at Colorado State, Miles helped North Dakota State make the transition from Division II to Division I.
“One thing about Tim is every situation where he’s coached previously, they got better while he was there. They improved, and you can tell he’s really good at building, and I’m sure he’s going to do that same thing at Nebraska,” Groce said.
“I didn’t know him very well before I got the job but I’ve got the chance to see him at Big Ten meetings, talk to him a little bit. But I think his kids compete. I think he’s doing a really good job of putting the personnel that he has in the best position to be successful. I think he’s going to continue to do what he’s done at all his previous stops and that’s just build.”
Tuesday’s game was the fourth in nine days for Miles’ Cornhuskers. The coach recognizes plenty of areas where his team needs to continue to show improvement, but he also recognized the importance of giving them some breathing room — mentally and physically — during the grueling stretch of games.
“I think you worry about both. We gave them (Sunday) off; they needed that. Get out of the gym, get away from each other. I think that’s really important that they’re able to do those things,” he said. “At the end of the day, the physical wear and tear’s not going away; it’s mid-January. We’ve still got another two months of this if we do it right. We’ve just got to keep the guys fresh and ready to go. I think the mental grind is as important as the physical grind.”
The Cornhuskers were jolted by the return of 6-foot-10 senior Brandon Ubel in Saturday’s win at Penn State.
The senior forward missed three weeks with a fractured elbow.
“He is fine, all good. All signs point to everything being fine,” Miles said. “As soon as Brandon could get full extension he was going to get cleared to play. Last Friday he could go out and shoot a free throw and get full extension into that. There was no swelling, and if you brace it up there was likely no further damage. Obviously, I don’t want to play a kid and put him in a bad position. Once he got medical clearance from our doctors and our trainer we put him in the ballgame, and it was a godsend for us.”
In Ubel’s absence, freshman Shavon Shields blossomed as a scoring threat. Shields, the Big Ten Freshman of the Week, scored 29 points in the win at Penn State and dropped 18 at Purdue.
Shields dealt with an elbow injury and then a wrist injury early in the season, and he finally has been healthy the last four weeks, which has led to his elevated level of play.
Miles is excited to have him coming into his own with Ubel back in the mix.
“I thought they played well together. When we got those guys in to practice together, we always felt like that was our best group, and you could see that again on Saturday afternoon,” the coach said.
Entering Tuesday’s game, the Huskers were 0-2 in conference play at home and dropped two nonconference games at the Devaney Center. Miles is searching for a formula for improved play in front of the home fans.
“I’ve got to figure that one out, find out who these guys are hanging out with when they’re at home. Maybe have some curfew rules or no dating or something like that," he said. “The way we’ve played on the road, I don’t mind going on the road. We’ve performed all right. I think everybody likes playing at home.”