CHAMPAIGN — One play during Illinois’ four-game foreign tour of Italy illustrated to Illini coach Brad Underwood how much difference a year in the program has made for Alan Griffin. The sophomore guard got his defender to bite on a shot fake, and then, airborne, the defender rammed into Griffin.
A year ago? Griffin would have fallen down on the play, according to Underwood. Not so in Italy, where the 6-foot-5, 180-pound guard flashed a diverse skill set to go with his sturdier frame.
“This year he took the hit in the shoulder, took one hard dribble and then finished the play through contact,” Underwood said in appearance on “Illini Pella Saturday SportsTalk.” “It’s a maturation. It’s a confidence that comes with understanding the system. Then it’s the confidence that comes from working so hard. Man, you love to see that, and that’s why you’re so proud of those guys that pay a price and work that hard.”
Griffin’s work started in May when he stayed on campus alongside fellow sophomore Ayo Dosunmu. They took an extra class and basically spent the rest of their time working with strength and conditioning coach Adam Fletcher.
“Those two guys have really challenged and pushed each other in terms of the work ethic,” Underwood said. “Alan, he’s a gym rat. I’m really proud of Alan from the standpoint we’ve pushed him to continue to grow his body and get in great shape. You see some confidence. You see some maturity and that work pay off.
“We chart opportunities to go to the offensive glass, and in four games (in Italy) he missed one opportunity to go. That relentless pressure going to the rim paid off for him. He made strides defensively as well. He was outstanding over there.”
Underwood wasn’t just effusive in his praise of Griffin, who averaged 16.7 points, 7.5 rebounds, 2.5 assist and 1.7 steals in four games in Italy. The Illinois coach was also just as pleased with Dosunmu (24 ppg, 4.0 apg, 3.7 rpg, 1.7 spg). Tevian Jones and Trent Frazier, too.
The entire Illinois team wasn’t in Italy, of course. Both senior guard Andres Feliz and freshman center Kofi Cockburn were unable to travel with the team because of visa complications.
“You feel so bad for them because it was a special trip and it’s a special opportunity,” Underwood said. “Yet, it was not without a lot of work and a lot of trying. We obviously were not the only team that was affected by the visa issues getting into Italy and even getting into Spain. Almost every team we saw over there had complications. That was a tough pill for those guys and for us. We’ll welcome them back here in a couple days and know they’re integral parts of what we’re trying to do.”
No Cockburn meant not being able to pair the freshman 7-footer in the frontcourt with sophomore forward Giorgi Bezhanishvili. It wasn’t the same, but Illinois did get Bezhanishvili some minutes at the 4 in Italy by playing walk-on forward Zach Griffith at the 5.
“On the positive side of that is we got 10 practices,” Underwood said. “We didn’t see (Bezhanishvili and Cockburn together) against other competition, but we did see it in practice.
“We all understand it won’t be a 35-minute-a-game deal where those guys are playing together, but we did get some good looks at that. There’s no doubt we’ll play that way again.”