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Iowa Illinois Basketball

Illinois forward Michael Finke, right, pulls down a rebound against Iowa forward Luka Garza in the Hawkeyes' 104-97 overtime win over the Illini on Jan. 11 at Champaign. Finke said Monday he will transfer to another school for his final season of eligibility.

If you’re the longshot University of Illinois basketball team looking to stir up a little early March Madness, you might dream of what’s possible.

You might dream that it would be sweet to beat Iowa on Wednesday in the Big Ten Tournament opener.

And dream it would be cool to upset Michigan on Thursday. And dream it would be amazing to knock off Nebraska on Friday. And keep dreaming that it would create national shock waves Saturday with an upset of regular-season Big Ten champ Michigan State.

Then end the dreamiest of dreams by capping it off with a victory in Sunday’s championship game. Ah, perfect.

Illini coach Brad Underwood isn’t that kind of dreamer. He said Tuesday he’s dreaming of nothing more than playing well against Iowa (4:30 p.m., BTN). His nature won’t let him raise his sights beyond Wednesday.

“If you know me, you know I don’t get too far ahead,” Underwood said as his team prepared to practice in Brooklyn at the Nets’ NBA practice facility. "Obviously I have an understanding of what’s in front of us if we do win, but I’m not thinking about Michigan. I’m thinking about having all of our energy and focus on Iowa.”

Illinois (13-17) may have already lost focus against the Hawkeyes (13-18) once this season and Wednesday’s rematch can’t be a repeat of what happened Jan. 11 in Champaign.

In that game, Illinois raced to a 49-29 lead with 3:53 remaining in the first half. By halftime the lead was down to 13 points. And it took an off-balance 3-pointer by Illini freshman Trent Frazier to force overtime.

From there it was all Iowa. Jordan Bohannon scored 29 points and Tyler Cook added 21 points and 13 rebounds as the Hawkeyes won, 104-97.

“Jordan Bohannon and Tyler Cook really had their way with us,” Underwood said. “So did Luka Garza on the offensive glass. We have to do a better job than we did in the first one.”

When that game was played, Illinois was without Te’Jon Lucas, who was serving a suspension for a violation of team rules. Not only has Lucas returned, but his role has expanded.

“I showed our team clips of Te’Jon and his effort in the Rutgers game (a 75-62 victory Sunday),” Underwood said. “Diving on the floor, denying players the ball, helping on defense. He had three of the best offensive rebounds we’ve had all year, running from the opposite side of the court (for one of them).

“If we get everyone to maximize effort the way he is playing, that will get us four, five, six extra possessions a game and that might be all you need in a close game.”

Wednesday’s game will be the first of 13 Big Ten Tournament games played between Wednesday and Sunday. The four lowest-rated teams start play Wednesday. The four highest-rated teams earn a double bye and won’t play until Friday. That includes Michigan State, the No. 1 seed.

Underwood admitted he’s excited to be playing in Madison Square Garden and planned to show his players a montage of clips so that they’d have an understanding of the historical significance of a building Underwood called, “the greatest basketball venue in all the world.”

“We’ve brought it up and they haven’t talked much about it but we’re going to show them a highlight tape today. It’s just one of those deals that makes basketball really special," he said.

“Not everyone is afforded this luxury and we’ll show them what it has meant to some of the greats. Michael Jordan and Magic (Johnson) have all had unbelievable moments in ‘The Garden.’ I want our guys to understand what it is to play there. It’s not just your ordinary arena.”

Underwood said freshman Mark Smith, who missed the Rutgers game with an illness, should be available Wednesday.

“He’s still fairly weak but he did manage to get through the majority of practice (on Monday),” he said. “I would expect him to be in uniform.”

Follow Mark Tupper on Twitter: @MarkTupper


Sports Columnist

Sports columnist for Lee Enterprises Central Illinois.

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