NEW YORK — Brad Underwood made it through 31 games without a technical foul.
It’s what he prefers, really.
The first-year Illinois coach might have a fiery sideline demeanor, but he’s not particularly interested in getting T’d up.
That changed — at least in the heat of one second-half moment — in Wednesday’s Big Ten tournament game against Iowa.
“They were on a run,” Underwood said. “It’s my only technical of the year. I’m not a big fan of them, to be quite honest, and it wasn’t directed at any one official or anything else. That was pretty well planned on my part.
“At that moment in time, I needed to change some sort of mojo or whatever you want to use about the game and hopefully try to rally our guys, give them something to rally around. It worked for a minute or two. But that was the whole purpose.”
Iowa was able to push its lead back to double figures at 52-40 with 16:27 left in the second half after Jordan Bohannon hit both technical free throws and Tyler Cook added two more on the Illinois foul that preceded Underwood’s technical. The Illini chipped away at their deficit for what turned out to be the second of three times in the second half without ever claiming the lead for themselves.
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Michael Finke scored 13 points off the bench against Iowa and led the Illini with four rebounds. It was the second straight game in double figures for the redshirt junior forward and second straight game he had an impact on the boards.
That level of production — especially his ability to spread the floor as a three-point threat — is what Illinois missed when he was forced to the bench for four games following a concussion he suffered Feb. 10 in practice.
“I’ve had one or two (concussions) in the past before,” Finke said. “The first few days were pretty tough with a headache and all that stuff. After a while I started to feel fine, but with the concussion protocol, even when you think you’re fine, you may not be totally 100 percent. I was feeling good for probably four or five days before I was able to do anything. To not be able to be out there with my team was pretty disappointing.”
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The Illini played the role of basketball vagabonds during their extended stay on the east coast following Sunday’s regular season finale at Rutgers and Wednesday’s tournament opener. That meant having to find practice time at any available court — a task for director of operations Joey Biggs that Underwood said was a “grind.”
Monday’s practice was at the New York University rec center. Tuesday’s meant a trip to Brooklyn to use the Nets’ practice facility. Wednesday’s morning shootaround before facing Iowa happened at Baruch College.
Bouncing around the city meant the Illini also got a taste of New York traffic.
“(It was) pretty cool seeing different gyms, but it’s crazy how long a bus ride that’s only a few miles can take so long,” Finke said. “Going to Brooklyn to the Nets’ practice place felt like 40-50 minutes to get to the gym. Definitely worth the longer bus ride. The Nets place was unbelievable. You see the view of the city right outside the gym with windows right there.”
Practicing away from home had its other challenges.
“One of the challenges was it was an 84-foot court,” Underwood said about playing at the NYU gym. “It wasn’t a full-length court, but it gave us an opportunity to get out and move.”
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The gap between playing Rutgers and playing Iowa also meant a little downtime for the Illini after finishing the regular season with four games in eight days, alternating home and away dates.
“After the Rutgers game, we had two days — we practiced, obviously — but we were able to relax and get off our feet,” Finke said. “It was a nice change from the last week. Some of us (were) able to go out, walk around the city, get some dinner on our own. Just kind of hang out and relax.
“Times Square was pretty cool at night — seeing all the lights and TVs, different people on the street performing. Totally different than Champaign.”
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Illinois’ wild finish to the regular season was a byproduct of the Big Ten squeezing its regular season into a week shorter than normal to play its conference tournament at Madison Square Garden. The Big East tournament will take place there next week.
Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany told the Chicago Tribune last week that the condensed conference schedule won’t be repeated because it “wasn’t healthy.”
“We’ve probably been at nine or 10 one-day preps this year,” Underwood said. “That’s the way the calendar falls along with this. We’re going to show up and play, but I was glad to here that, though. … We’re going to get back and have our conference tournament on the last weekend.”
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Trent Frazier’s inclusion on the Big Ten All-Freshman Team is one Underwood called “quite an accomplishment.” It also reflected the growth the freshman guard showed in his first season with the Illini.
Underwood thought back as far as the charity exhibition game Illinois played with Eastern Illinois, remembering Frazier’s struggles simply getting the ball across halfcourt. The first Big Ten game of the season against Northwestern on Dec. 1 wasn’t much better.
“I could hardly put him on the court,” Underwood said.
The opposite became true. There were times Underwood couldn’t afford to have Frazier off the court — especially when it came to getting any offense.
“There’s no question that Trent maybe has improved as much as any freshmen I’ve had in a long time,” Underwood said. “I’m elated for Trent. I’m excited for the future because he’s just tapped what his growth could be.”
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Underwood is looking for similar growth from freshman Greg Eboigbodin. The 6-foot-9 forward played sparingly in the first two months of the season. He had a breakout stretch in early January — averaging 7.4 points and 4.8 rebounds in the first five games of the new year — but couldn’t maintain that level of production.
“Maybe uncertainty is the right word,” Underwood said about Eboigbodin’s play. “I don’t want to say lack of confidence because he has some confidence. It’s a really big adjustment, but he does have to get stronger.”
Underwood wants Eboigbodin to add upper body strength, but doing the same to his lower body in the offseason is maybe even more important. That way he can hold position in the post better and not feel off balance with every touch or bump.
“The old cliché is the best thing about freshmen is they become sophomores,” Underwood said. “An offseason with (strength and conditioning coach Adam Fletcher) will do wonders. I would expect it will be 15-20 pounds (gained), and the before and after picture will be startling.”