CHAMPAIGN — Brad Underwood hasn’t tinkered with his starting lineup since he moved Andres Feliz back to the bench and Da’Monte Williams into the first five in early December.
The Illinois men's basketball coach typically hasn’t changed his second-half starters this season either.
A poor first half from sophomore forward Giorgi Bezhanishvili on Tuesday night against Michigan State, though, prompted an adjustment from Underwood.
The Illini went small to start the second half against the Spartans, with Underwood inserting sophomore guard Alan Griffin in Bezhanishvili’s spot.
“We’ve been messing with it a lot in practice,” Underwood said of the smaller lineup. “We’ve been trying to create space, trying to free Kofi (Cockburn) up a little bit, to be honest, and try to free driving lanes. I think you saw (Tuesday) what we can do driving the basketball.
“There’s a ton of ways to get the ball to the front of the rim. It doesn’t always have to be through a post up. You can do it cutting. You can do it driving it. I love the fact we got to the line 25 times (Tuesday). That was something we tried to emphasize. It definitely wasn’t Giorgi’s best night, and we had to change something because that wasn’t working.”
Griffin started the second half with a three-pointer — the beginnings of Illinois’ comeback attempt in what ultimately turned into a 70-69 loss. He finished with nine points and seven rebounds as Bezhanishvili struggled again.
Bezhanishvili had 13 points against Northwestern on Jan. 18 and 10 points the next game at Purdue. In the five games since, the 6-foot-9 Georgian has averaged 4.4 points and 4.2 rebounds while shooting 23.5 percent, dealing with careless turnovers and having to regularly contend with foul trouble.
“We’ve seen Giorgi at his very best, and right now things are a little tougher for him,” Underwood said. “You can try too hard. You can put too much pressure on yourself. We need him. We’ve got to get him back and in a position to help our ball team down the stretch.”
Tevian Jones was actually the first Illinois player off the bench Tuesday against Michigan State. A first for the 6-7 sophomore guard, who has played a minuscule role since serving an eight-game suspension to start the season and has picked up five more DNPs along the way.
Jones hit an early three-pointer against the Spartans, matching his scoring total for the season — three points against North Carolina A&T — in one, fell swoop.
“Playing better,” Underwood said was what Jones had done in practice to earn his most playing time since Illinois’ first game against Michigan State this season. “Pretty simple. It’s about trust. That sounds cliche and it’s a short answer, but he’s playing better. He’s making less mistakes, and it’s both ends of the court. We need what he can provide. He can provide some perimeter shooting, and we need that.”
Illinois also got 15 points and four rebounds off the bench from Andres Feliz. It was the 6-2 senior guard’s fifth straight game in double figures — a feat he also accomplished earlier this season at the end of November and into early December.
Feliz is averaging 15.2 points and six rebounds in this latest five-game stretch.
“I’m running out of superlatives and adjectives,” Underwood said. “He gets every tough rebound.”
Illinois trailed by 17 points at halftime and found itself facing a quick 20-point deficit when Michigan State sophomore guard Aaron Henry knocked down a three-pointer to start the second half. The Illini’s comeback attempt was ultimately fueled by 10 turnovers from the Spartans in the final 20 minutes.
“(Cassius Winston) got in foul trouble, and we kind of fell apart,” Michigan Stat coach Tom Izzo said. “It happens because of turnovers, and they were turnovers for touchdowns. They just ran it at us.”
Illinois’ defense has managed to frustrate Michigan State in the Underwood era. That’s just come differently this season after Underwood changed his defensive scheme.
“I’m not speaking for Tom’s team, but it’s the one thing they do a lot is they have a tendency to turn the ball over,” Underwood said. “They’re one of the few teams that our change in style, getting away from all the denial and the pressure probably impacts us more than anybody.
“I thought our defense was very good. It gave us opportunities and got us downhill. We were trying to go at (Winston). That makes secondary and third ball handlers that much more important, and we got a few baskets off of it.”
Winston finished with 12 points for Michigan State, getting to double digits thanks to 5 of 7 free throw shooting. Even with their potential All-American dealing with foul trouble and not at his typical level of production, the Spartans were able to get a career night out of Rocket Watts. The freshman guard finished with 21 points and two assists.
“Rocket never played that many minutes,” Izzo said, referencing Watts’ season-high 29 minutes. “Considering how Cash played, we needed it big time.”
Watts scored just seven points in 15 minutes in Michigan State’s loss at Michigan this past Saturday. The Detroit native also had just one assist in the Spartans’ five previous games before facing Illinois.
“We told our guys that,” Underwood said. “When he gets it and goes, he is never passing it. Yet we were late to adjustments. You can’t help off of him. He got a couple buckets going that way. He had a huge night and hurt us. … When he sees one ball go in, that thing looks like a 55-gallon drum.”
Former Illinois guard and three-time NBA All-Star Deron Williams was back in Champaign on Tuesday accompanying his daughter on a visit to campus. Williams also dropped by Illinois’ shootaround before Tuesday’s game.
“He just talked about how proud he was to be back and how much he loves this place,” Underwood said. “The atmosphere, seeing that, he was excited. He was talking about how proud that this program and these guys have made him feel watching games.”