A flying start for the Illini

A flying start for the Illini

CHAMPAIGN — Illinois' charity exhibition game against Eastern Illinois didn't count beyond serving as an avenue for funds to be raised for the American Red Cross and hurricane relief.

Statistics were recorded but won't affect season averages. Nothing changed in the win-loss column. Still, the Panthers' 80-67 upset victory over the Illini won't exactly be forgotten.

"I don't think they had much fun Friday night," Illinois coach Brad Underwood said about his players' reaction this week in practice to last week's loss. "I don't think they enjoyed that a whole lot. There's been maybe a different attentiveness to the way we approach things."

That's because games do count now. Illinois will open its 2017-18 season at 7 p.m. today against Southern University at State Farm Center — Underwood's true debut as Illini coach.

"I can promise you I'll have goosebumps," Underwood said. "I'm glad you all will not see me for the hour prior to the game. I get nervous. I do. I get much more nervous as a coach than I ever did as a player.

"We've been battling each other now for 42 days and roughly 30 practices. Are we a finished product right now? We're not. We'll be better in a month than we are right now, and we'll continue to grow that way."

Michael Finke characterized Illinois' practices this week as intense. The emphasis was on cleaning up the mistakes the Illini had against Eastern Illinois.

For Finke, that was rebounding. Kipper Nichols said it was attention to detail. And according to sophomore point guard Te'Jon Lucas? Defense.

"We really didn't guard anyone out there," Lucas said about the loss to Eastern Illinois. "It seemed like we were at Oracle Arena. They were shooting threes, the crowd was like, 'Aye!' and they were going right in. I remember one point in time coach came and said they were shooting 85 percent from the field. I believed him, but they didn't.

"We weren't in our lines. We weren't on help side. We weren't guarding our yard. We've been focusing a lot this past week on the little things that lead to big possession stops."

Underwood saw the value in the loss to Eastern Illinois as teachable moments for his team this week. The schematic mistakes — the X's and O's — could be fixed. His biggest disappointment in the loss was the Panthers outhustling his team. Finding the competitive drive to fix that is Underwood's focus.

The Illinois players have moved past their frustrations of losing a game they believed they should have won. They've found what value they can in the 13-point defeat.

"Honestly, I think at least us players thought we were a lot better than we showed out there on Friday," Finke said. "For us to go out there and actually take that 'L' and learn from that has been good for us. It's humbled us a little bit and made us even hungrier out here on the court moving forward."

Nichols said the Illini have had a different mindset this week in practice. Losing at Eastern Illinois didn't sit well with the team and reinforced that no game can be taken for granted.

"Things that are non-negotiable are effort and playing hard and knowing the (system)," Nichols said. "I think every team goes through its ups and downs in the season. Always at the beginning of the season you're forming your identity and everybody's grasping what their role is."