CHAMPAIGN — The University of Illinois basketball team is set to fight a number of demons Thursday night at the State Farm Center.
Illinois will battle a desperate Iowa team that is 0-for-5 in Big Ten Conference play, a rampaging flu bug that has infected several players and a student cheering section that will try to make noise without the students.
All in all, the conditions could be better.
“It’s been a challenging week,” said coach Brad Underwood, who has been one of the few members of the team who hasn’t been treated by team doctors.
“Who has the flu affected?” he said. “It hasn’t affected me, but everyone else has had something, from our secretary to (strength and conditioning coach) Adam Fletcher. We’ve had a wide spectrum of guys out.”
Actually, three freshmen have somehow managed to sidestep an illness that first grabbed Leron Black, who was showing symptoms after the last home game on Dec. 30.
Black was very sick on the recent road trip to Minnesota and Michigan, as were others. “Mark Alstork was throwing up before the Michigan game,” Underwood said. “He tried to play but we’ve had it run through our whole team.”
Freshmen Trent Frazier, Da’Monte Williams and Gregory Eboigbodin offered a collective shrug when asked why this bout of winter illness has yet to infect them.
“I don’t know how I didn’t get sick but I’m perfect now,” said Frazier, who figures to make his second career start against the Hawkeyes. “I guess it’s my hair,” he said, tipping his head to show off his unusual hairdo.
Williams figures his good fortune has to do with his clothing. “I wear coats and hats,” he said. “But I don’t wear gloves. I just keep my hands in my pockets.”
Eboigbodin, who on the recent road trip made 9 of 10 shots and seems to have secured a more important role as part of the big man rotation, said he’s just listened to the advice of coaches and the medical staff.
“We’ve been told to keep our personal hygiene good and take showers and wash our clothes, so, yeah, we’re doing pretty well," he said.
Who is healthy enough to play Thursday night (7 o'clock, FS1) remains to be seen, but Underwood figures Illinois (10-7, 0-4) can’t afford to be short-handed against an Iowa team he says is better than its record (9-9, 0-5) would indicate.
“Iowa’s good,” he said. “They throw a lot of different defenses at you. They have tremendous size and length. I think Tyler Cook (sophomore from St. Louis) is one of the best players in our league, outstanding.”
And yet combined, Illinois and Iowa are 0-9 in the league. What’s the problem?
“I have no idea what it is for them, but for us in conference play we’ve had opportunities in each of our four games,” Underwood said. “They’ve had opportunities as well. We’re both looking for consistency.
“In our case, we all want to win. Our locker room has a bunch of guys who want to win. I just don’t know yet if we expect to win. Expectation is swagger and confidence and maybe both are lacking. In conference play, no matter what league or what level, nothing is given. Everything is earned. You have to go take it.”
Underwood talked about Kipper Nichols as a case study in inconsistency.
For three games in a row, against Missouri, Grand Canyon and Minnesota, Nichols scored two points in each game. Then Saturday at Michigan he scored 17 and grabbed seven rebounds. That, Underwood said, is the definition of inconsistency.
“Michigan was a great game for him,” Underwood said of his 6-6 forward. “His problems aren’t on the offensive end. We’re trying to limit his mistakes on the defensive side and keep him dialed in there. His minutes will probably coincide with that.
“At Michigan he took great shots, other than that jackknife layup on a breakaway, which we’ve replayed for him 50 times. He has to go dunk that ball. But on the defensive end, it’s the simple rotation he doesn’t make that stresses our defense. That’s been one of our bigger challenges — making teams score through us, not because we make mistakes."
With students still on semester break, the Orange Krush section will be populated in part by general public ticket-buyers. With four of the first five games of 2018 on the road, it’s the only game that will be played without the students in full force.