If this was any other season, the University of Illinois basketball team would have been back in Champaign on Monday, working in its own practice gym while preparing for the final couple games leading to the start of the Big Ten Conference Tournament in nine days.
Instead, the Illini practiced Monday in a bandbox gym at New York University, then went back to the team hotel where academic counselors snapped open laptops and set up makeshift study halls as Illinois hopes to extend the longest road trip of the season. Next up: Illinois vs. Iowa in the Big Ten Tournament opener at 4:30 p.m. Wednesday.
“We’ve been planning this for some time, filled out (NCAA) waivers and our academic people are here,” Illini coach Brad Underwood said Monday morning. “We’re heading to practice now, then the afternoon will be primarily academics as we take care of those responsibilities.”
The schedule has made every Big Ten team consider new approaches because when Maryland and Rutgers were admitted to the league in 2014, Commissioner Jim Delany promised he’d bring the Big Ten Tournament to Washington, D.C. (in close proximity to Maryland) and New York City (close proximity to Rutgers).
Delany made good on the first half of his promise last season when the tournament was at the Verizon Center in Washington. And the commissioner is making good on the second part by bringing the tournament to Madison Square Garden Wednesday through Sunday.
To do it, he had to conclude the regular season one week earlier because the Big East Conference has a long-standing reservation at “The Garden” for the following week.
Has it been an inconvenience? Delany has already said he’d never do it this way again.
But on Monday, coaches said they were excited to be playing in New York City and in the storied Madison Square Garden in particular.
“I think playing in Madison Square Garden is something everyone will remember,” Indiana coach Archie Miller said.
Underwood called it “the greatest venue in all of basketball.”
Maryland coach Mark Turgeon said the compressed schedule was a necessary evil.
“I think we had to do it as a league,” Turgeon said. “We wanted to get to New York. We owed it to Rutgers. No one is blaming Jim (Delany). It was something we all agreed to do.
“Was it hard? Yeah, hard on the student-athletes. Sometimes we played three games in five days. It was difficult, but I don’t know that we would change it. Jim has already said he doesn’t want to do it again and I’m sure we’ll all be OK with that.”
Underwood is trying to sell his team on the concept that the conference tournament signals a fresh start and a chance to prove that signs of late-season improvement can help extend the season.
The coach has just guided Illinois through a stretch where it played four games in eight days. If Illinois could pull a major surprise and somehow land in the championship game on Sunday, stamina would be tested even more.
“It would be nine games in 14 days if we made it all the way through,” Underwood said. “And that’s the goal.”
Underwood said he would likely have a light practice on Monday, noting that while preparation is important, fresh legs are critical, too.
He said he was uplifted by the contribution he got from his bench in Sunday’s 75-62 victory at Rutgers, a game in which Michael Finke, Aaron Jordan and Da’Monte Williams combined to contribute 37 points and 19 rebounds.
“I like our bench,” Underwood said. “I like how we’re developing and we’ll need all of them to make a run.”
Notes: Freshman Mark Smith was on the practice floor Monday after missing Sunday’s game with flu-like symptoms … Finke’s 19-point outburst Sunday against Rutgers was his best production since Dec. 13 when he also scored 19 against Longwood … Finke missed four full games with a concussion before returning to play 15 minutes Feb. 22 against Purdue. He played 27 minutes Sunday, his longest stretch since Feb. 4 at Ohio State.