Illinois continues to chase its first Big Ten basketball victory tonight at Nebraska.
Once again the Illini will do so short-handed.
Coach Brad Underwood said Sunday that sophomore point guard Te’Jon Lucas will be suspended for the second straight game for a violation of team rules. “He won’t travel with us,” Underwood said of a player who started the first 16 games of the season.
Also, flu-like symptoms that have slowed a number of players continue to plague freshman guard Mark Smith, who on Saturday was able to practice for the first time in six days.
“Only by necessity did I plan on playing Mark Smith as many minutes as he did the other night against Iowa,” Underwood said. “Then he had a recurrence (of the flu) the next day. He’s just kind of finding his way back.”
Also hit hard by the flu has been leading scorer Leron Black. But Underwood said Black is on the mend. “This is probably the best he’s felt,” Underwood said.
Illinois has lost each of its first five conference games, three of those games decided in overtime, including the 104-97 loss to Iowa on Thursday. In that game freshman guard Trent Frazier led the way with 27 points including a buzzer-beating 3-pointer at the end of regulation that forced overtime.
It is Frazier’s confidence Underwood is hoping can become contagious on a team that seems to have precious little of it. He said Frazier is setting a winning tone in practice.
“His energy in practice has been incredible the last two days, better than he played the other night. That becomes very, very contagious. Everyone wants to have that feeling.”
Underwood’s Oklahoma State team opened the Big 12 season last year with an 0-6 record before hitting its stride. The Cowboys won 9 of their final 12 conference games and reached the NCAA Tournament with 20 victories overall.
“When times are tough and nothing goes well, you find out what kind of man you are,” he said. “More importantly, we have to find out what kind of team we want to be.
“We’ll find out if the locker room becomes more divided or more together. I happen to think this locker room comes together.
“It’s easy to jump off the bandwagon and not listen when you get discouraged but you can’t let it stop you from being prepared. That’s where Trent’s swagger and confidence is oozing into our locker room and I like that.
“This team is capable. We’ve shown that with three overtime losses and a game there for the taking at Minnesota. We’re not far off, but we can’t let discouragement be the voice of reason here. We have to be solid and sound and bought into what we’re trying to do collectively.”
Illinois will try to do that against a veteran Nebraska team that has received a boost from Georgetown transfer Isaac Copeland, a 6-9 forward averaging nearly 13 points per game.
“He has given them a nice dimension,” Underwood said.
Running the show is point guard Glynn Watson, Jr., the half-brother of former Illini star Demetri McCamey.
After tonight’s game, Illinois will go on the road again to play at 8 p.m. Friday at Wisconsin before returning to play five of its next six games at home starting with a Jan. 22 game against Michigan State.