College/Prep Sports Reporter

Scott Richey is a reporter covering college basketball at The News-Gazette. His email is srichey@news-gazette.com, and you can follow him on Twitter (@srrichey).

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CHAMPAIGN — Illinois turned the ball over 10 times in the first half of Monday night’s eventual 66-53 win against Hawaii.

That had the Illini well on their way to matching their season average to that point of 20.7 turnovers per game. Six turnovers in the second half saved them from a fourth straight game with 20-plus.

“We had to find that balance in transition,” junior guard Trent Frazier said. “I think that’s where most of our turnovers were, having that pace. We did a better job with that second half and took care of the ball.

“Coach said we went 15 minutes without a turnover, so that’s incredible for us. We’re going to continue to grow at that and continue to take care of the ball and execute on offense.”

Illinois coach Brad Underwood still can’t pinpoint exactly where his team’s turnover trouble has come from this season. Mostly because it’s not one area where turnovers have been an issue.

“We had 29 assists and 12 turnovers in all of practice (Sunday),” Underwood said. “I know we’re capable of it. We’ve played just a little bit sped up. We’ve played too fast and tried to do too much, too early, instead of letting things happen. Trying to hit home runs every time, so to speak, after one or two passes is not how this game’s meant to be played.”Bryce Drew was on the call Monday night on ESPNU for the Illinois-Hawaii game — his latest career stop after being let go as Vanderbilt’s coach following the 2018-19 season. Drew got to face the Illini in Underwood’s first two seasons in a pair of “secret” scrimmages, and he sees one clear difference in this year’s team.

“I’m really excited for this team,” Drew said. “I think the addition of (Kofi) Cockburn in the middle changes this team drastically and improves everybody else on the team. The experience of the three guards coming back is really going to come into play come January-February when you get into the Big Ten schedule. It could be a difference maker.”

Illinois is playing its three-guard lineup of Ayo Dosunmu, Andres Feliz and Frazier more this season, including starting them all together.

“You have to have guards to win,” Drew said. “Guards usually have the ball in their hands at the end of games to win games. They have three capable guys that have experience. I think Feliz has been tremendous in these first few games. I would look for him, being his senior year, to really take the lead in that leadership role on the court.”The Illini’s week off after returning from its two-game road trip to Arizona didn’t happen by accident.

Underwood wanted to give his team a break after playing three games in the first week of the season. Plus do a little re-evaluation, getting back to the basics to clean up some execution and add some new wrinkles.

The players took advantage.

“It was great for the body, great for the mind,” Dosunmu said. “We had a long week to lock in and focus on the little details. It’s all about getting better and better. Talent-wise, we’re one of the best in the country, and I truly believe that. The only thing that can hold us back is if we don’t execute, if we don’t play hard and if we don’t play for each other.”

That scheduled week without a game was also in preparation for this week. Monday’s showdown with Hawaii was the first of three home games this week for the Illini.

They’ll be back in action at 8 p.m. Wednesday against The Citadel and play again at 7 p.m. Saturday against Hampton.

“That’s the one thing that’s really hard about nonconference basketball is the frequency with which you play,” Underwood said. “Sometimes it’s really nice to build in time off and get an opportunity to have a sample size so you see what your strengths and what your weaknesses are and then have an opportunity to take some time off.

“The flip side to that is you get three games in a week sometimes. That’s something we obviously opened the season with, and now we’ve got another one. When you do that, you’re less into yourself and probably more into your opponent in terms of preparation.”Halfcourt offense was a point of emphasis during Illinois’ off week.

The Illini’s first three games saw them get a bit stagnant offensively when not in transition. Underwood sees the offensive fix as simple.

“We’re missing opportunities for first-cutter layups and things we’ve always done in the past,” he said. “We missed eight of them in the Arizona game. It’s just simply a guy catching the ball and delivering a pass. I think we’re predetermining a little bit what we want to do. I think we’ve over dribbled — over handled instead of passing. The dribble’s the easiest thing to guard in the halfcourt when it’s not attacking.”Cockburn arrived on the Illinois campus this summer weighing 315 pounds. The 7-foot freshman center now checks in at 285 — a 30-pound weight loss that strength and conditioning coach Adam Fletcher helped engineer.

“I couldn’t ask for anything more,” Cockburn said. “I’ve improved really a lot thanks to him. He’s been on me. He makes sure I get great recovery. My body is well taken care of.”

Cockburn losing those 30 pounds was helped, in part, by Fletcher getting the Illini big man on an AlterG treadmill during summer workouts.

“When we had him early, his body weight was obviously something we had to address,” Fletcher said. “We have a treadmill in our weight room that we can de-weight guys to 20 percent of their body weight to have him run. I was able to do extra conditioning with him on that treadmill. We started him at 60 percent of his body weight to help him lose the weight he was running at. So he wasn’t running at 100 percent of his body weight, which can put extra force on the legs — stress fractures and those types of things we try to avoid when you’re doing extra conditioning.”Emily Danckers started at Illinois in August 2019, working as the team dietitian for men’s and women’s basketball, softball, soccer and women’s golf. The Illini basketball team, though, has been taking dietary and nutrition cues from Fletcher in his five years with the program.

“Fletch changed my lifestyle as far as my nutrition,” redshirt senior forward Kipper Nichols said. “I think that’s No. 1. When I first got here, I wasn’t paying attention to what I ate. I was eating anything.

“I literally used to follow Fletch around through the line to make my plate. I just made it a habit. A couple months later, I was like, ‘Wow.’ My body felt great. I was making improvements all because of nutrition. Now, every day I’m conscious about what I’m eating and what I’m putting in my body.”

Fletcher has helped Dosunmu put on both good weight and strengths since he arrived on campus in the summer of 2018.

“He helped me gain about 20-22 pounds, and he kept me disciplined with my eating,” Dosunmu said. “Fletch, he’s the best in the business. He helped my body tremendously.”Scott Richey

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