Illini ready to wrap up nonconference schedule


Austin Yattoni

Illinois forward Michael Finke jumps for a slam dunk during the game against Augustana at the State Farm Center on Nov. 22.

By Will Gerard, Staff Writer

Illinois basketball closes the nonconference season with a home matchup against Grand Canyon, and it looks to extend a 13-game home winning streak against non-Big Ten foes.

The Illini are coming off a signature victory in the Braggin’ Rights game, where they implemented several new offensive schemes and secured the largest halftime lead in the history of the rivalry series with a 20-point lead at intermission.

Illinois (9-5, 0-2 Big Ten) held on late for a 70-64 victory, and it was the program’s fifth-consecutive win over Missouri in the Braggin’ Rights game.

Head coach Brad Underwood called Grand Canyon (10-4) “one of the three or four best teams” Illinois has played so far this season, and he considers Grand Canyon an “NCAA Tournament-caliber” opponent.

“They’ve got tremendous veteran experience,” Underwood said.

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Grand Canyon has two fifth-year guards, Joshua Braun and Casey Benson. Benson transferred from Oregon, where he was a key piece in the Duck’s Final Four run, according to Underwood. Benson is not known for his scoring prowess; he finished second in Pac-12 history with a 3.23-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio last season.

Although junior forward Michael Finke’s younger brother, Tim, a senior guard out of Champaign Central High School and Grand Canyon commit, is unlikely attend due to his team’s holiday tournament, Finke established one rule if Tim does attend his older brother’s game.

“I told him not to wear any Grand Canyon stuff,” Finke said. “I’ll get him an orange sweatshirt before the game.”

The Illini last went unbeaten at home against nonconference opponents in 2014-2015.

Illinois won’t return home for a 12-day stretch after Saturday’s contest. Four out of the first five conference games are on the road.

Prior to scoring a career-high 22 points against Missouri, freshman Trent Frazier tweaked his free throw routine after the Illinois coaching staff noticed too much body movement and a lack of focus on the rim.

Frazier responded with a 10-11 performance from the charity stripe in St. Louis.

Underwood recognizes that Frazier is playing with an increased level of confidence, and he has seen much mental growth from the reigning Big Ten Player of the Week.

Frazier is averaging 17.8 points and three steals per game over the past four contests.

He has also shot 43.5 percent from 3-point range, and he has averaged 2.5 3-pointers per game over that four-game stretch.

Junior guard Aaron Jordan is the third-highest scorer on the Illini at an average of 11.3 points per game, which is over a 10-point jump from his average last season, and it is the biggest one-year improvement of any Big Ten player this season.

Jordan scored just nine points against New Mexico State and one point on one shot attempt against Missouri, following a career-high 22 point scoring outburst against Longwood.

“There are a tremendous amount of positives when teams want to lock him down because it creates space, and space is a wonderful thing for offensive basketball,” Underwood said.

Underwood believes Jordan is still a more than capable scorer, and he may eventually consider running offensive schemes that get him better looks from 3-point range.

Jordan has shot 60 percent on 3-point attempts, which leads the Big Ten and ranks third in the nation.

“I’m not worried one lick because he just made about 17 in a row yesterday in practice,” Underwood said.

Junior forward Leron Black will look to continue his strong play against Grand Canyon’s frontcourt. He is averaging 18.5 points and 7.5 rebounds over the past two games.

Over the University’s winter break, the Illini have worked on their own specific offensive and defensive deficiencies, in addition to conditioning and individual workouts.

Underwood views winter break as an “unbelievable opportunity” for the Illini to practice and to work on their own respective games.

“We tell our players, and our athletes, it’s the time to act like a professional when there’s no academic load,” Underwood said. “You can be in the gym as much as you want to be in the gym, watching film and doing those things.”


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