Illinois men’s basketball travels to Minnesota after recovering from COVID-19 outbreak within program


Photo courtesy of David Craan/Illini Athletics

Guards Alfonso Plumer and Trent Frazier high-five during the game against St. Francis on Dec. 18. The Illini will be up against Minnesota on Tuesday.

By Jackson Janes, Sports Editor

For the first time since Dec. 22, an 88-63 blowout win over Missouri, Illinois is back.

But after snapping their three-game losing streak in the Braggin’ Rights game and with players heading home for Christmas break, the Illini saw their momentum quickly come to a halt with 10 players testing positive during routine testing once team members returned to campus.

“It’s been a very different Christmas break,” Underwood said. “We’ve done very, very little activity at all, the guys who were positive, and we’ve had 10 in our group that were positive, so they have done nothing. They’ve been secluded and stuck away in their apartments. We’re trying to get them back touching a basketball.”

With one game canceled and another rescheduled, Illinois will play its first game of 2022 in Minneapolis, where it will take on Minnesota on Tuesday night.

The Golden Gophers sit at 10-1 this season and have already picked up Power-5 wins over Pitt, Mississippi State and Michigan, all of which came on the road, though they sit tied for fourth in the Big Ten with a 1-1 conference record.

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Minnesota has an almost entirely new roster from last season with each of its top six scorers opting to transfert elsewhere, including Third-Team All-Big Ten guard Marcus Carr, who transferred to Texas, while former coach Richard Pitino was fired after the Golden Gophers finished 6-14 in Big Ten.

With new head coach Ben Johnson at the helm, Minnesota brought in several transfers, including forward Jamison Battle from George Washington, who is averaging 18.9 points and 6.5 rebounds while shooting nearly 50% from the floor.

The Golden Gophers also have relied on Vanderbilt transfer guard Payton Willis and Lafayette transfer guard E.J. Stephens, who are averaging 16.3 and 16.7 points, respectively. 

While Illinois has one of the most efficient offenses in the Big Ten, shooting 39.7% from the field, the second-highest mark in the conference, Minnesota has one of the best defenses, holding its opponents to a conference-best 24.8% from the field.

The Illini are expected to have all but two players available on Tuesday – Austin Hutcherson and Andre Curbelo – despite their COVID-19 outbreak, though it is yet to be determined if players will have to wear masks while playing, Underwood says.

With varying levels of recovery and training among every player since the Christmas break, Underwood isn’t quite sure where conditioning levels will be heading into Tuesday’s game.

“You start looking at the runs that take place that are three-, four-, five-minute runs without any stoppage, yeah, you’re probably going to have to go a little bit deeper because your recovery time may not be as quick for certain guys,” Underwood said. “I tell everybody that being in great shape is not how long you can play; it’s how quickly you recover. That’s one of the challenges with those long runs is that it takes a little while longer to recover. We’ll monitor all of our guys that way.”

Tipoff is scheduled for 6 p.m. at Williams Arena in Minneapolis.



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