ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Brad Underwood has shortened his rotation this season.
The Illinois coach has typically gone just three deep on his bench. It was essentially just two deep Saturday during the 21st-ranked Illini’s 64-62 road win against Michigan, with sophomore guard Alan Griffin unavailable after receiving a two-game suspension from the Big Ten on Thursday afternoon.
Tevian Jones played 4 minutes, 43 seconds — his highest minutes total since Jan. 2 — and Jermaine Hamlin checked in at just 23 seconds. Griffin’s absence instead meant more minutes for Da’Monte Williams and the bench duo of Andres Feliz and Kipper Nichols.
Feliz came through with arguably his best overall performance since November. It was needed, too, with Trent Frazier battling foul trouble throughout the game. Feliz finished with 15 points, seven rebounds and two assists to give Illinois a solid complementary piece to Ayo Dosunmu in its backcourt.
“Trent got in foul trouble, and Dre picked him up,” Dosunmu said. “He’s a pitbull. He just goes. He gave us some huge buckets when we needed it. We needed all those buckets he gave us.”
To no surprise, Feliz deflected the importance of his performance. Per usual, the senior guard remained focused on his team.
“I stepped up for the team and tried to do everything to win,” Feliz said. “I’m a team player. It doesn’t matter coming off the bench. I’ve said that since the beginning of my career. That’s my mentality. I don’t have to be a starter every single time. You never know what can happen. The coach needs you coming off the bench for a reason. That’s my role now, so I’ve got to keep focusing on that and try to do everything to help the team.”
Feliz also knew he had to elevate his game with Griffin unavailable.
“We knew we didn’t have his energy on the floor, but he was the same for us on the bench,” Feliz said. “We know how important he is for us. We were trying to pick up his energy and do it for him.”
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Underwood also had plenty of praise for Williams even while the junior guard remains 0 for 2020. An airball three-point attempt was Williams’ only shot of the game. All nine of his shot attempts in the new year have been from beyond the arc, and not a one has gone in, as Williams is also scoreless in his last seven games.
“I can’t say enough about Da’Monte Williams and the job he did (Saturday),” Underwood said. “I think he guarded every player on the floor for them at some point. His value doesn’t show in the stat sheet, but it sure does to winning basketball.”
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Before discussing Saturday’s win against Michigan in his postgame press conference, Underwood first shared some thoughts on the recent death of former Illinois center Robert Archibald.
“The Illini nation lost one of our beloved family members in Robert Archibald (on Friday) at 39 years old,” Underwood said. “It’s a sad day when something like that happens. I want everybody to know that he’s a part of our thoughts and prayers, along with his family. We’re grieving with them.”
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Saturday’s win extended Illinois’ Big Ten-leading winning streak to six games. Half of those wins have come on the road, with the Illini winning at Wisconsin on Jan. 8 and at Purdue and Michigan this week.
“Tough team, tough team,” Feliz said was important in Illinois’ success away from home this month. “We practice hard. I think nobody practices harder than us. I think that’s what we’re coming out here and doing on the road. All five of us on the floor connect on defense. That’s what’s helping us win on the road.”
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Illinois didn’t get its typical production from either of its big men Saturday against Michigan. Freshman center Kofi Cockburn was almost a non-factor with five points and three rebounds before fouling out for the first time all season. Sophomore forward Giorgi Bezhanishvili had four points and five rebounds.
“Coach Howard, he’s a great coach,” Dosunmu said about first-year Michigan coach Juwan Howard. “He’s an NBA coach, NBA veteran and he’s about that position. He knows how to contain bigs. They did a great job with that, but that’s the one thing about our team. The next man steps up.”
Next man up on Saturday, of course, meant the Illinois guards. Nichols is the de facto backup big man and finished with just three points and one rebound behind Cockburn and Bezhanishvili.
“I loved Kofi’s looks early,” Underwood. “Kofi missed three or four or five bunnies, and so did Giorgi that he normally makes. We get 16 shot attempts for those guys, and that doesn’t happen very often where they make 25 percent of them.”
Michigan freshman Franz Wagner, who wound up guarding Bezhanishvili, also credited the Wolverines’ coaches for how prepared the team was to limit Illinois’ post players.
“The bigs were ready for (Cockburn’s) duck-ins, which he does really well,” Wagner said. “We tried to extend his catches. I don’t think that hurt us too much.”
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Michigan’s frontcourt received a boost from the return of junior forward Isaiah Livers. The Wolverines had played their previous six games without their third-leading scorer and top three-point shooter. Livers finished with seven points and five rebounds in 20 minutes of action, but he went to the bench in the second half after appearing to re-injure his groin.
“He sacrificed his body for us to come back,” Wagner said of Livers. “I think he played his heart out. He even came back in to make that pass at the end. That’s big time. I just hope he feels OK (Sunday). You hate to see your teammate — especially when he just got back — come down wrong and kind of grab his old injury.”
Underwood prepared his team like Livers would play and anticipated his return.
“The one thing he proved early was he was probably one of the best pro prospects in our league with that size and versatility,” Underwood said. “He was shooting it at an extremely high level. It’s very difficult at the highest levels to be out any length of time and just jump right back in. I hope he’s OK. I hope it’s not an aggravated injury.”
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Saturday’s win was Underwood’s 150th as a head coach. He won 89 games in three seasons at Stephen F. Austin, 20 more in his lone season at Oklahoma State and is now 41-44 in two-plus seasons leading the Illini.
“Every head coach is only as good as the staff he puts together,” said Underwood, who wasn’t aware of the milestone. “I’ve been remarkably blessed to have a great, great staff and very good players. That started at Stephen F. Austin, then Oklahoma State and now here. Head coaches get too much blame and too many accolades sometimes, but we’re a family. We use that word a lot. The Illini basketball family is a big part of all of those.”
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Zavier Simpson led Michigan with 17 points in Saturday’s loss. He shot 58 percent from the field after getting plenty of easy looks around the basket. That was a bit by design. What Illinois didn’t allow was Simpson — the nation’s assists leader — to get going as a facilitator.
“They have five assists as a team and none in the first half,” Underwood said. “That meant that he was going to score some baskets because he’s a really, really good player. We knew (Jon) Teske was going to score some baskets. You just play percentages. You play numbers. If you would have told me before the game we were going to hold Michigan to five assists, I would have liked our chances.”