CHAMPAIGN — Preparation for what would have been Wednesday night’s game with Nebraska started immediately after Illinois’ 66-63 home loss Sunday night to Maryland.
The Illini coaching staff started its deep dive on the Cornhuskers that night and continued through most of the day Monday.
Until the phone call came early Monday afternoon. Positive COVID-19 cases among Nebraska’s Tier I personnel — a group that includes athletes, coaches and any staff member whose job requires regular close contact — meant the Cornhuskers were putting their program on pause. The game in Lincoln, Neb., was off. The work Illinois coach Brad Underwood and his staff already put in to gameplan against Nebraska won’t go to waste. The No. 14 Illini and Cornhuskers are scheduled to play in Champaign on Feb. 24, and both teams are now working with the Big Ten to get the now-postponed game rescheduled.
“We file that away and we’ll get ready for the Buckeyes on Saturday now instead,” Underwood said of the game against No. 21 Ohio State scheduled for an 11 a.m. tip at State Farm Center in Champaign.
But Illinois could have used that trip to Nebraska. It was an opportunity for a “get-right” game after losing to Maryland on Sunday. And a “get-right” game against a Nebraska team that’s proven vulnerable at Pinnacle Bank Arena both in nonconference (losses to Nevada and Georgia Tech) and during Big Ten play (losses to Michigan, Michigan State and Indiana) play.
The silver lining to not playing Wednesday at Nebraska?
Illinois (9-4, 5-2 Big Ten) could use the bonus days created in its schedule to get right in a different way. Tuesday’s practice shifted from a final prep for Nebraska into an opportunity for the Illini to focus on themselves. It was needed after a week that saw them play one patently bad half (first 20 minutes at Northwestern), one incredible half (the final 20 minutes in Evanston) and two ho-hum halves Sunday against Maryland.
“We ran our offense with no pace,” Underwood said about the Maryland game. “We were really stagnant. We looked heavy-legged and almost tired and lethargic. Nobody all year has gotten in a defensive ball-screen coverage with us because we’ve run it with so much pace. (Sunday) was a different story. We’ve got to get that figured out.”
A few extra prep days for Saturday’s game against Ohio State (9-3, 3-3) also presents an opportunity, Underwood said, “to get fresh legs” for his players. A chance to get healthy, too, for guys like Trent Frazier and Da’Monte Williams.
Frazier was injured against Maryland, taking an inadvertent elbow from Terrapins forward Galin Smith directly to his left shoulder in a battle for a rebound. Williams’ injury is more of the long-term nagging kind.
“Da’Monte has been fighting an Achilles and ankle injury that has really limited his athleticism and his mobility a little bit,” Underwood said. “He’s a tough kid — he’s played through it — but any of that extra time will really benefit those guys.”
Frazier was clearly in pain after taking the blow to his shoulder and needed to be assisted to the bench by athletic trainer Paul Schmidt, who kept Frazier’s left arm immobilized. Frazier returned to the court in the second half, but only briefly.
Wednesday’s postponement now means Frazier has nearly a full week to recover.
“Trent’s a pretty tough kid, and Trent, pound for pound, might be as strong an athlete as there is on our campus,” Underwood said. “For Trent to go down like that, you knew it was something a little more than just your average contact.
“He was in the gym (Monday). He got up some shots. Paul configured some sort of pad to kind of protect him. He was in (Monday) getting used to how that feels and what that’s like. We’re optimistic he’s in a good place, and the extra few days, there’s no doubt, could benefit him.”
Underwood leans on Schmidt, strength and conditioning coach Adam Fletcher and nutritionist Palmer Johnson to keep his team as ready as possible from a physical and health and wellness standpoint.
“We want to see the physical changes and get bigger and stronger, but the No. 1 goal is to stay injury-free,” Brad Underwood said. “That’s what being a well-conditioned athlete is. Nobody’s any good if they’re sitting on the sideline and are dinged up and can’t perform.”