MADISON, Wis. — There may come a time when Brad Underwood writes a book about his first season as University of Illinois basketball coach.
So far, it’s too painful to put what has happened into words. But even he has to marvel at the succession of close calls that have slithered through his team’s fingertips.
Thinking about the three Big Ten Conference overtime losses and most recently a buzzer-beater loss at Nebraska, Underwood contemplated what’s next as Illinois plays Friday at Wisconsin (8 p.m., FS1).
“I don’t know if we’ve had that chapter in the book yet,” he said, referring to the latest close call. “We can continue to add to the book, but I’m about ready to put a conclusion to all the crazy stuff.”
Underwood looks at the team’s 0-6 conference record and cringes when he thinks about the overtime loss at Northwestern on Dec. 1, the 92-91 overtime loss to Maryland on Dec. 3, the overtime loss to Iowa on Jan. 11 and, most recently, the 64-63 loss to Nebraska on Monday, when the Huskers hit a double-pump 3-pointer at the buzzer.
“You’re not that far away from third place and yet we’re 0-for,” he said before practice Thursday.
The good news, Underwood said, is that the Illini (10-9 overall) have not hung their heads despite the close-call disappointments.
“I love the resiliency of this team,” he said. “We show up every day with the mindset of getting better. Guys are in and around on their days off. We have to learn to become more cohesive and together as a team. That’s been my message for a month. Our culture is not just wanting to win, it’s expecting to win.
“It’s helping a teammate and we’re not doing that well enough. Those are locker room things we have to continue to build on. It’s a credit to the players because they are upbeat."
Underwood is hoping Michael Finke can build on his performance at Nebraska. He grabbed 10 rebounds and scored 15 of his 16 points in the second half. His four-point play with 8.1 seconds to go gave the Illini a 63-61 lead.
“Mike has a tendency to worry about whether his ball goes in or not,” Underwood said. “I told him to take the focus off of that. See how many rebounds you can grab. See how many charges you can take. When you do that, it frees you up mentally and the ball has a better chance to go in.”
Underwood also said sophomore guard Te’Jon Lucas, who has been suspended the last two games, will be available Friday night. “If needed,” the coach added.
Wisconsin (9-10, 2-4) has lost three in a row and is in an uncharacteristic sub-.500 position midway through January. Underwood said Wisconsin is still a solid team that sticks to a formula that has worked for years.
“They have a tremendous identity about them,” he said. “They know what they’re going to do. They run their stuff and they know who will touch the ball. They’ve been dinged up with some injuries which has magnified the load on Ethan Happ.”
Happ, a 6-10 junior, leads the Badgers with 16.7 points and 8.4 rebounds per game.
“Happ has shown his overall skill set," Underwood said. "He’s bringing the ball up court, he’s going to touch the ball on just about every trip and you have to guard that and protect that. And he assists on so many plays. He does what all great players do — he makes his teammates better.”