Slow start last thing Illini need

Slow start last thing Illini need

CHAMPAIGN — Brad Underwood had seen enough.

Substitutes were already on their way to check in at the scorer's table as Maryland opened up a quick lead a month ago at State Farm Center during the two-game December prelude of Big Ten play.

A layup by Michal Cekovsky put the Terrapins up 10-0. Not inclined to wait for a dead ball and the first media timeout, Underwood called one of his own so he could get, by that point, all five of his subs in the game.

The leash might be that short again as Illinois (10-5, 0-2 Big Ten) returns to conference play at 8 p.m. Wednesday at Minnesota (12-3, 1-1).

The Illini have found ways to win — and lose — games after slow starts. Their margin of error shrinks in the Big Ten.

"The bench will be utilized a little more if we're not into a start," Underwood said. "I'm not afraid to make a wholesale line change. You've got to try to right the ship quickly in those things if it's a slow start.

"Top to bottom, this conference is as good as any in the country. There's no easy games. If you don't show up, you don't deserve to win. We've tried to reiterate that to our guys."

The early December Big Ten games will allow the conference to squeeze its league schedule into a week shorter season to accommodate hosting the Big Ten tournament at Madison Square Garden. Those games also afforded some teams — Michigan State, Purdue and Ohio State — a leg up on a conference title run.

Illinois is at the other end of the spectrum alongside similarly winless Iowa and Rutgers. A pair of overtime losses to Northwestern and Maryland in games Underwood and the Illini feel they should have won makes for a steeper climb now that Big Ten play has resumed.

"We've dug ourselves a little hole so to speak," Underwood said. "The one thing about conference play is it's not a sprint. It's a marathon. You have to do your job every single night. Over the course of 18 games — or 20 in the future — it is a grind. This conference does it like no other in terms of home court advantages and attendance."

Those December Big Ten losses were part of five losses in seven games for Illinois. Since then, the Illini have knocked off Missouri and Grand Canyon, finding ways to close out tight games both times.

"I think we've matured a lot as a team," Illinois redshirt junior forward Michael Finke said. "We've learned how to finish games a little better. We're playing more as a team, sharing the ball, and defensively we're getting a lot better. We've just got to play it out for 40 minutes now and put it all together."

Playing Northwestern and Maryland the first weekend of December was the introduction to Big Ten play for a significant number of players on the Illinois roster. Freshman guard Trent Frazier called it "really intense."

"Everyone comes out to those Big Ten games," Frazier continued. "The excitement of the game and coming out and playing in front of thousands of people is very fun."

Frazier said beating Missouri and Grand Canyon — particularly how those games were won — has Illinois prepared to re-enter Big Ten play.

"We stepped up our defense, and our offense is a lot better," he said. "We've learned a lot from our mistakes."