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Illini coach Brad Underwood for anytime use

Illinois coach Brad Underwood applauds his team against Nebraska this season. Underwood is in the midst of a roster rebuild ahead of the spring signing period next week.

Brad Underwood is an optimist. That’s why when he got onto the University of Illinois charter Saturday, he packed so many clothes it looked like he wouldn’t be coming home for a week.

That’s exactly what the Illini basketball coach is hoping.

“It’s sick how much I have packed,” Underwood said before boarding the team flight to New Jersey, where the Illini play Rutgers in the regular season finale at 2 p.m. Sunday (BTN).

Rather than come home after the game, Illinois has decided to simply shift hotels to New York City where the Big Ten Conference Tournament will begin Wednesday.

Since the championship game won’t be until next Sunday, and Underwood wants to project the belief Illinois could be alive in the tournament for the long haul, he brought multiple suits, plenty of toiletries and “eight or nine pair of underwear.”

His players have been encouraged to stuff their suitcases, too.

“I am trying to manage the suits but the dress shirts become a problem and it has piled on from there,” Underwood said. “It’s a good thing we’re not flying commercial. We’d have a small fortune in baggage fees.”

Underwood is feeling good about Illinois’ chances — both Sunday and in the conference tournament — because he’s finally seeing the growth he had hoped to see earlier.

The way Illinois (13-17, 3-14) competed at second-ranked Michigan State on Tuesday, and pushed No. 9 Purdue to the final minutes Thursday, is convincing him lessons are being learned.

“I like where we were offensively against Purdue,” Underwood said. “I thought we got whatever we wanted. That end wasn’t a problem for the first time this year.”

So have the Illini arrived?

“We’re getting a lot closer,” he said. “The half-court offense has been pretty good. We still can’t play maybe as fast as I want, but we’re getting 3-point shooting from different places and that has helped a great deal.

“We’re getting ball movement. The assist totals are up. In every segment where we play good offense it’s because we share the ball and the ball doesn’t stick.”

Underwood said the results against nationally-ranked teams should give players confidence that their hard work is paying off.

“The guys have to learn to trust, to trust their teammates and the offense. They’re starting to understand,” he said.

The effort over 40 minutes has become much more consistent.

“I think we’ve grown there also,” Underwood said. “I tell the guys that being in great shape isn’t pacing yourself. It’s not how long you can play. It’s how quickly you can recover. It’s OK to give it all you’ve got and ask to come out. That’s being unselfish.

“We still aren’t quite where I want it to be in terms of toughness and taking charges and extra effort. We make the first two plays fine but we have to make the third and fourth better. But we’re much farther along than we were a month ago and light years from where we were early.”

In many ways, Sunday’s game at Rutgers (also 13-17, 3-14) is a potential trap.

Illinois beat Rutgers 91-60 Jan. 30 in Champaign. Trent Frazier knocked down five 3-pointers in the first half as Illinois enjoyed its most lopsided Big Ten victory of the season.

After playing Michigan State and Purdue this week, and given how lopsided the first encounter was, Illinois could be looking ahead to the conference tournament. And fatigue could be in play since it is Illinois’ fourth game in eight days.

Underwood said repeating the effort against Purdue “has to become the new baseline.”

“It’s everything I’m going to be about going into (Sunday’s game),” he said. “This is the time of season you want to be playing your best, no matter where you’re at. It’s a one-game prep because we gave them Friday off, but I’ll expect them to play as hard as we did in the last two.”

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Sports Columnist

Sports columnist for Lee Enterprises Central Illinois.

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