Illini hope adrenaline gets them through tough three days
Illinois head coach Brad Underwood demands toughness more than anything from his players on a day-in-and-day-out basis, and at times this season he has publicly challenged them.
After battling through a tough early stretch in the season when Illinois had players miss games because of NCAA suspensions (Kofi Cockburn), injuries (Trent Frazier, Andre Curbelo, Austin Hutcherson, Luke Goode) or the flu which hit a majority of players on the roster, Illinois might be faced with its most difficult challenge of the season yet.
It’s a challenge that will test their toughness this week with games against Minnesota and Maryland over a three-day span, beginning with a road trip to take on the Gophers on Tuesday night.
Because Illinois had 10 players test positive for COVID-19 when the team returned from a short Christmas break on Dec. 26, the Illini had a game canceled against Florida A&M and had their game with Minnesota postponed to Tuesday. The game against the Golden Gophers was originally supposed to be played on Sunday, Jan. 2.
Of the 10 players who tested positive, “some of the cases were more mild, some were more severe,” according to Underwood. Illinois is following CDC and university guideline on when allowing a player who tested positive to return to team activities.
The CDC recently updated its guidelines reducing isolation from 10 days to five days for people who no longer show symptoms. However, people are still suggested to wear a mask for the following five days. Underwood said it is “still to be determined” if any Illinois players will be wearing a mask on Tuesday against Minnesota.
Returning to play two games in just three after having up to 10 players out of the building at a time is a trial, but Underwood believes that the tribulations of having players out early in the season will help them against Minnesota on Tuesday night.
“But being able to have so many guys out through the fall, which we have,” Underwood said. “And guys playing different positions has created an atmosphere where guys have played different positions has created an atmosphere where guys have played, guys have gotten minutes and guys are going to have to do that. It’s not just this game (against Minnesota), it’s the Maryland game on Thursday.”
Underwood said that the conditioning aspect of things is going to be something to monitor in these two games. Underwood said that they didn’t want to push any players too far in these games. But he still believes that his players will have the necessary energy to play for the full 40 minutes.
“The one thing you can never underestimate is the great drug of adrenaline,” Underwood said. “That helps you persevere and push through some tough times. It’s a little bit different in practice and we’ve gone as hard as we feel like we can go and not put our guys in uncomfortable situations. There’s no doubt game speed is different. There’s no doubt that they will get a little tired a little quicker, but once they get their second win and the adrenaline kicks in, some of these guys will be fine.”
Still, Underwood is aware that every player is likely to respond differently. He said that super senior point guard Trent Frazier has a different body type that allows him to recover more quickly than what others may be able to do. Frazier said the adrenaline of getting back to a game is welcoming.
“It just gives me energy,” Frazier said of returning to games after the long break. “I love playing games. If we could play five games a week, I’d play it. I love being out there playing in front of the lights, the fans, it’s always fun. It’s something I like to do.”
Frazier likened the quick turnaround from Minneapolis on Tuesday night to a one-day preparation for Maryland on Thursday to a practice schedule that Underwood has been known to employ at Illinois.
“Playing back-to-back games, it’s almost like practicing at 6 p.m. and practicing at 6 a.m. (the next day),” Frazier said. “Coach always puts us in those situations where we are going to feel uncomfortable, we just have to get through it, that’s what we are focused on.”
Underwood wanted to use the final weeks before Big Ten play continued to do what he said Illinois basketball does best, get better over Christmas break. Because of COVID-19, Illinois wasn’t able to do that.
“To say that we’re at our peak would probably be stating something that’s not true, with being off that long,” Underwood said. “But it’s next man up, everyone has to go in and contribute and do their part and we are going to strive to be the best we can for the 40 minutes it takes on Tuesday night.”
On Tuesday it will be 13 days since the Illini last played a game. But Frazier looks at the continuation of Big Ten play as an opportunity for players to step up in potentially bigger roles as the Illini face one of their most difficult challenges to date.
“I think this is an opportunity for other guys to step up,” Frazier said. “I feel like we have been on vacation a little bit. I think 1-13 we are going to be amped up, ready to go. Like coach said, adrenaline. We are going to have energy; our legs feel good. We are going to be ready to rock and roll and try to get some W’s.”