Between losing streak, COVID-19 cancellations, Illinois approaches crucial point in season

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Ryan Ash

Senior Trent Frazier drives towards the basket during the game against Ohio State on Saturday.

By Brandon Simberg, Staff Writer

Before a Monday afternoon practice, Brad Underwood was alerted to some expected but still disappointing news. His team’s game on Saturday at Michigan State had been postponed.

The Spartans have been dealing with COVID-19 issues for over a week now, and three more confirmed positive tests came within the program Sunday. For Illinois, it’s the second postponed game in 10 days and third this season. All three canceled games have been a reflection of the other team and not Illinois, who has had zero positive tests this season.

“Unfortunately it takes two to play,” Underwood said. “It’s the one thing we have learned. You show up every day and do your job at 7:30 every morning. You test, you do a PCR, you do an antigen test. We talk to our guys every single day after practice about doing the right things.”

The rescheduling of the games adds a tricky element in an already bizarre season. After a matchup with Penn State on Tuesday, Illinois will have nine days until they play again against Iowa on the following Friday. But following Iowa, they return to a condensed schedule with multiple games in a week. The Big Ten did not leave a week at the end of the season for make-up games. This could lead to an unprecedented end of the season for Illinois.

“I think everything’s going to be the table at some point,” Underwood said. “What we look at as our potential conference schedule now, it may not look anything like this in 8-10 days.”

In the meantime, Illinois can’t overlook Penn State on Tuesday. They beat the Nittany Lions earlier this season 98-81, but Illinois has struggled since then. Consecutive home losses to Maryland and Ohio State have dropped Illinois to the middle of the Big Ten, a spot the preseason top 10 team didn’t expect to be in.

A large part of that has been a failure to play well for a full 40-minute stretch. Against Ohio State and Northwestern, Illinois trailed by 15 at halftime. The first time they played Penn State, the Nittany Lions took an early 19-4 lead. Purdue managed to go on a 19-0 run when they played in Champaign. Illinois knows they can’t allow these things to happen.

“The last three games, we haven’t put 40 minutes together,” said senior guard Trent Frazier. “The end of the story is we gotta find a way to put 40 minutes together and do what we do everyday and every night. Obviously, we can play for 20 minutes and be the best 20-minute team in the country. But if we put two halves together, I really mean it, nobody will be able to beat us.”

The Penn State game offers Illinois a chance to right the ship, as the Nittany Lions are 0-4 in conference play. Underwood wouldn’t admit it, but Illinois’ schedule raises a level of difficulty down the stretch. After being favored in their first 10 Big Ten contests, the Illini are underdogs in five of the last ten, per Bart Torvik.

Tuesday’s night contest is set for a 7:30 p.m. tip-off. The game can be watched on the Big Ten Network.

@BrandonSimberg