Illinois looking to improve defense against Notre Dame


Austin Yattoni

Illinois senior guard Aaron Jordan (23) goes up for a dunk during the game against Mississippi Valley State at the State Farm Center on Sunday. The Illini won 86-67.

By Brian Binz, Staff Writer

It’s back on the road again for the Illinois men’s basketball team. After a single game tune-up against Mississippi Valley State on Sunday, the Illini prepare to head to South Bend, Indiana, to try and pick up their first Power-5 win of the year.

The Illini passed their first game back from the Maui Invitational in Hawaii with flying colors, but for head coach Brad Underwood and company, their season is only just beginning.

“They’re a young basketball team. I’ve enjoyed watching them on tape,” Underwood said. “They’re a team that’s very very good offensively; it’s a great challenge.”

That challenge means going into Notre Dame’s gym — where the Irish haven’t lost yet this year — in part because of their strong game on the glass.

“It’s a great opportunity,” Underwood said. “We’re not treating it any different than any other game, it just happens to be on the road. We’ve always taken pride in being able to win on the road.”

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    Underwood has made sure his players are aware of the Irish’s rebounding prowess, especially on the offensive glass, and that it will be a team effort to rebound.

    In Maui, the Illini were out-rebounded in every game they played, in some part leading to each of the team’s three losses. However, since then, guards like freshman Ayo Dosunmu have stepped up their rebounding game.

    “I’m 6 foot 5,” Dosunmu said. “I’ve got to get in there and get five to seven a game. I can get it and push it so it takes a step away.”

    Against Mississippi Valley State, Dosunmu was able to do just that, picking up nine rebounds along with nine assists, but the Irish will be a different struggle.

    Notre Dame has been a staple of NCAA postseason play the last few years, but much like the Illini, it has moved to a new wave of young players to go with the remaining postseason experienced vets.

    Underwood has history against Notre Dame. His last meeting against the Irish was in the second round of the 2016 NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Tournament, where Underwood’s Stephen F. Austin lost on a tip-in by freshman guard Rex Pflueger, who will start for the Irish against the Illini this year.

    While Pflueger is the name that most basketball fans will recognize, the names Mooney and Harvey are the ones Underwood brought up first.

    While last game the Illini started both grad transfer 7-footer Adonis De La Rosa and freshman center starter Giorgi Bezhanishvili, the Irish’s play style may limit the minutes the Illini play together against them. Underwood said the Irish are small, with big men who shoot three and rebound about 40 percent of their misses.

    Behind this pair of bigs, the Illini put up rebounds against Mississippi Valley State, but against the Irish, it will be a team effort on the glass, as in many cases there won’t be more than one big man on the floor, something senior Aaron Jordan understands.

    “You gotta hit,” Jordan said. “That’s something they take pride in, so we have to match that. It has gotta be a team effort.”

    Jordan also understands the pressure of playing in a true road game, something freshmen like Dosunmu have experienced since they’ve arrived at the University. With it coming as a span of about six games in a week, Jordan has also emphasized recovery for Illinois’ many youngsters.

    “We keep preaching recovery, recovery, recovery,” Jordan said. “This is how you’re gonna feel; you gotta play through it.”

    While Underwood was liberal with his playing time against Mississippi Valley State, the Illini will likely see a shortened rotation that once again doesn’t include players like freshman Samba Kane, who had a strong second half showing against the Delta Devils, collecting a big block and a few dunks off of nice passes from the Illini’s backcourt.

    The rotations will likely look a lot more like the ones in Lahaina, Hawaii, which have allowed freshman Alan Griffin to become a big part of this Illinois offensive attack. Griffin is shooting 46 percent from three to go with a defense, which Underwood said is improving.

    One man’s defense, however, won’t be able to fix an Illini defense that has surrendered 80 points or more to every Power-5 team they’ve played so far this season, and it’s something Dosunmu and the team say they’ve noticed.

    “We watched the film yesterday. We allowed ball handlers to get straight line drives,” Dosunmu said. “We gotta rotate better.”

    The defense needs to come soon. The Illini are already running out of games they can afford to lose and still make the tournament this year, but Underwood said he thinks the team is ready.

    “We got through (Mississippi Valley State) yesterday, which was the important piece getting back on central time,” Underwood said. “Now we’ve got our minds right for Notre Dame.”

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