CHAMPAIGN — The squeak of sneakers and the thump-thump-thump of a basketball could be heard echoing out of the practice gym Tuesday. Voices were plenty loud. And then complete quiet.
Another day in the Brad Underwood Basketball Laboratory had come to a close.
This is how it is these days around the University of Illinois basketball program. Intense practices where Underwood’s culture of playing hard every minute is starting to become second nature.
“Because if you don’t work hard I won’t play you,” Underwood said matter-of-factly. “That’s what I want our program to be.”
Tuesday’s session began to expand the boundaries of Underwood’s “spread” offense, shoving new concepts and new strategies into a game plan that is starting to expand.
“It’s very vanilla what I have in there now,” Underwood said. “And with two Big Ten games coming up in 10 days, we spent a heavy amount of time on the offensive end today. We have to run better offense than what we’re running now. We’re not quite sound enough now. But we’re getting there.”
Illinois (4-0) had only Tuesday to prepare for Wednesday's home game against Augustana (3-0), the Division III school that plays in the same College Conference of Illinois and Wisconsin league that includes Illinois Wesleyan.
Underwood himself scheduled this game, in large part because he and assistant coach Ronald “Chin” Coleman have a close relationship with Augustana coach Grey Giovanine, who last year played for the Division III national championship.
“I knew Grey very well,” Underwood said. “I know how good of a coach he is. They will play as hard as any team we’ll see.”
More than that, “he’s a guy who is very familiar with our spread offense. When you schedule you can sometimes play some very poor Division I teams and win by 40 and get nothing out of it. We’ll get something out of this.”
The sense around the program is that Underwood is just now getting players to see how some of his grueling practices and insistence on precise habits are paying off.
Kipper Nichols, who has emerged as a versatile and key weapon, was still recently a player who went hard in practice, then backed off and coasted. That drove Underwood nuts because by definition it portrayed Nichols as inconsistent.
That’s when Underwood set up a scrimmage with Nichols and four walk-ons against five scholarship starters. Nichols may have felt it was unfair, but he and his less-heralded mates won the scrimmage and since then, Nichols has practiced and played with more consistent effort.
“Whatever we can do to keep the torch lit under Kipper we will do it,” said Coleman, who played for Giovanine at Lamar. “When his foot is on the gas, he can be a really good player for us.”
Coleman said when Nichols makes those habits part of his everyday demeanor he’ll become a complete player.
“Not just a teaser,” Coleman said. “If we let Kip tease us, he’ll be good one day and then he’ll cruise and think that he’s done something. If he does that, he’ll have an up-and-down season and our job is to hold him to a certain standard. We are not going to accept cruisers. Cruisers are losers.”
Augustana is not a tall team, although 6-foot-11 Micah Martin anchors the middle. But Underwood said he’ll get a strong effort from an Augustana team that posted records of 24-9, 29-2 and 27-5 the last three seasons.
Illinois hosts North Carolina Central at 6:30 p.m. Friday before preparing for its first road game of the season. Illinois is at Wake Forest at 8 p.m. Tuesday as part of the ACC/Big Ten Challenge.