Game preview: Illini learning lessons the hard way

Game preview: Illini learning lessons the hard way

CHAMPAIGN — Brad Underwood would like to think part of Illinois’ 25-point loss Friday night at Wisconsin was “a little Lincoln, Neb., hangover” after another would-be Illini win fell by the wayside with the Cornhuskers’ game-winning three-pointer.

What the Badgers’ blowout win did do for certain, however, was provide Underwood with the perfect counterpoint to some of the better moments he showed the Illini during the film session before Saturday’s practice back in Champaign.

The 40 minutes of struggles — alternating offensive and defensive ends — were a picture perfect example of what not to do.

“I think it’s a great example, a great lesson, that we’ve got a small margin when you don’t play with maximum effort and energy,” Underwood said. “I take a lot of pride as a coach in making sure every single night our team is the one that plays the hardest. That was not the case Friday night.”

Illinois doubled down on the lessons learned Saturday with a players only meeting before Sunday afternoon’s practice in preparation for today’s 8 p.m. showdown with No. 9 Michigan State at State Farm Center. 

Mark Alstork and Michael Finke arranged for the meeting that actually pushed the start time for practice by about 30 minutes. In the locker room, though, all the Illini had a voice.

“Everybody was leading in there, and everybody was talking,” Alstork said. “We haven’t had one all year, and that’s not good for a winning culture. We’re going to have them more often, and we’re going to figure this thing out and move forward.”

Alstork said Friday night after the loss at Wisconsin the Illini needed to come together better as a team. He echoed that sentiment Sunday.

“Of course everybody in here has their personal goals, but when we step on this court all that has to go out the window,” he said. “We’re all good players. We can all do special things on the court. We’ve got to just figure out how we can all trust each other and make each other better.”

The Illini enter tonight’s game against the Spartans having lost seven straight Big Ten games — near record futility in conference play in program history. The bottom of the Big Ten is Illinois’ alone.

“It’s time for us to start playing our game and doing what we do,” freshman guard Trent Frazier said. 

That idea was part of the players only meeting. 

“We’ve got to change the culture,” Frazier said. “We have a big ‘L’ on us right now, but we’re not even going to worry about those past seven games. It starts now in practice, and we’re going to change the season around.”

Saturday’s on-court work was the shorter part of Illinois’ practice. More learning happened in the film room, with the Braggin’ Rights win against Missouri used to counter the Wisconsin loss.

“No doubt about it our effort, our togetherness (and) how we wanted to win,” Alstork said were the differences he noticed between the two games. “Every game should feel like that no matter who it is. Our effort versus Wisconsin wasn’t there. Missouri, we were flying around, talking, helping each other. It was just a fun game. That’s how every game should be.

“We could see two different teams in an Illinois uniform. It can’t be like that. We need to be the same team each time we step on the court.”

Underwood said Saturday’s film session opened some eyes. While the loss at Wisconsin caught him off guard because of good practices beforehand, there was no letdown on the practice court Saturday following the biggest defeat of the season.

“I think it caught everybody’s attention a little bit seeing that effort (against Missouri) compared to what we put forth on Friday night in Madison,” Underwood said. “We got outplayed. We got outworked. When you don’t show up in conference play — no matter what league it’s in — on the road and give your maximum effort, those things are going to happen.”