Underwood: 'He's been incredible'

Underwood: 'He's been incredible'

CHAMPAIGN — Aaron Jordan is still experiencing some firsts in his Illinois career.

Friday's 17-point effort in Illinois' win against Southern was the first time the 6-foot-5 junior guard had scored that many points in game. The 10 he scored Sunday in the Illini's 77-74 win against Tennessee Martin marked the first time he'd ever been in double figures in consecutive games.

Not to mention it put him at 27 points through two games after he scored 23 points for the entirety of the 2016-17 season.

"He's been incredible," Illinois coach Brad Underwood said. "I've probably got to get him more minutes to be honest. I'm so happy for AJ because he's a guy that's put in so much time — so much work — and he's playing with so much confidence."

The clearest sign this season's Jordan is different than last season's was a rip drive he pulled against UT Martin. Fouled on the way to the rim, he didn't score, but it was an aggressive move that didn't show up in his repertoire the past two seasons.

"He wasn't doing that earlier," Underwood said.

Underwood said he takes pride in helping players improve. It's an investment he said he and his assistants have made in their careers and at Illinois since the coaching staff was put together this spring.

"Change is good for some people," Underwood said. "Change has been good for AJ. His mental approach has been great. Maybe it's a new lease on life? I love his competitive spirit. I love his work ethic.

"Whether I play him or not, whether I get on him or not in practice, every morning that guy's in the gym getting his reps up. That's dedication. That's a maturity. I don't know if he had that before, but I love it. I'm really fired up about his upside and what he can bring to our team."Jordan was one of five Illini to hit a three-pointer Sunday against UT Martin. In fact, he had two, as Illinois finished the game 6 of 21 from beyond the arc. That makes the Illini 10 of 42 (23.8 percent) from three-point range this season — even after an 0 of 7 start against the Skyhawks.

"I think our shooters have just got to keep shooting," Illinois redshirt junior forward Michael Finke said. He was 1 of 2 from three-point range Sunday.

"We have a lot of great shooters on this team. We've just got to keep shooting it. It will fall. Sometimes you just have to be tough and put it in the basket. We'll definitely keep shooting that ball."Finke was inadvertently hit in the face in the second half of Sunday's game. As the teams changed ends, Underwood called out to the officials: "He's all right. His bun got messed up."

"It was more to get his mind off of getting hit than anything else," Underwood said after the game about the moment of levity that drew a chuckle from the fans nearby that heard it in regards to Finke's long hair. "There's little mental things you do along the way. He was fine. I just wanted him to know that I knew he was fine."Illinois faced an entire 40 minutes of zone defense from UT Martin. It's a defensive look Underwood said the Skyhawks have always run under coach Anthony Stewart, but zone defenses can be common against his spread offense.

"Maybe I need to figure it out," Underwood said. "Everybody seems to work on their man-to-man stuff all the time, and when you face a zone you can struggle early. As the season goes on, I think it gets harder and harder to play zone and be effective."Underwood said Illinois has a limited playbook right now when it comes to zone offenses. Through two games, the Illini have only shown a small portion of what they might be able to do at that end of the court.

"I think it's going to be a long time before you see the finished product of that offense," said former Illini Sean Harrington, who served as the ESPNU analyst for Sunday's game. "Especially with so many young guys, I think they have the base of that offense put in, but there are so many reads and cuts they can make off of it. That's going to be the thing. How quickly can these guys pick up some of those wrinkles they can start adding in there and changing things up?"Harrington played three seasons with Frank Williams at Illinois. Now, he's broadcast a game featuring Williams' son, Da'Monte, an Illini freshman.

"The thing that sticks with Da'Monte is his passing ability," Harrington said. "That's where I see the similarity between him and Frank. Frank was on another level as far as overall player and obviously being Big Ten Player of the Year and an All-American. He had that flashy, special 'it' factor that could really carry a team. Da'Monte, being just a freshman, he's got a long way he can continue to improve, but his passing ability sticks out already."Leron Black spent a few extra moments after the game speaking with a few of the UT Martin players. Matthew Butler, Mike Fofana, Parrish Hewitt and Fatodd Lewis are all from Memphis — Black's hometown — and he played AAU with Lewis.

"It was a good feeling being around so many people from my hometown," Black said.Matic Vesel didn't play against UT Martin on Sunday after playing 8 minutes off the bench Friday. Underwood wants the 6-10 freshman from Slovenia to shoot the ball when he's open.

"Matic is a terrific shooter," Underwood said. "I can't get him to shoot it. If we lined everybody up and shot the basketball, he's going to be right there at the top in terms of the best shooters.

What Underwood doesn't necessarily need from Vesel — or fellow freshman big man Greg Eboigbodin in particular — are cameos as point guard bringing the ball up the court.

"Matic is very skilled," Underwood said. "He's been a guy that's played multiple perimeter positions, so he feels comfortable doing that. We don't want Greg ever doing that. I put as much responsibility on that (from) our point guards as anybody else."Scott Richey