CHAMPAIGN – The University of Illinois basketball schedule enters a “different” phase on Friday at State Farm Center.
“It’s the Big Ten. Games get to a different place and a different level when Big Ten games roll around,” Illinois coach Brad Underwood said of a 6 p.m. league game against Rutgers. “One of our goals is to win the Big Ten. If you can get through 20 games in this league and you come out on top, you have done a lot. That is a yeoman’s job. Job well done, men.”
The 5-2 Illini are not back to full strength after seven nonconference games that featured a key suspension, injuries and a nasty flu bug. Yet they do appear to be inching closer.
Underwood called Thursday morning’s practice “the first full day of having everybody in practice we’ve had even though we’re still cleaning up the back end of that flu bug.”
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That does not, however, include point guard Andre Curbelo, who has battled head and neck issues. “It is a process,” said the Illini coach, “and he’s out.”
Illinois clearly benefitted from the return of senior guard Trent Frazier from a leg injury in Monday’s 82-72 win over Notre Dame in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge.
“It means a lot. Trent gives us toughness and leadership,” said center Kofi Cockburn, who is averaging 26.8 points and 9.5 rebounds. “That’s the type of person he is. When he comes on the floor, the leadership is always right. He knows what to say. It’s great having him.”
Underwood is encouraged by his team’s progress despite suffering two losses that dropped the Illini out of the national top 25.
“This team is getting better,” Underwood said. “This team is starting to execute better and identify roles better. We’re starting to see guys blossom.”
Illinois also play at Iowa on Monday as each Big Ten team contests two early league games.
“It’s establishing who we are,” said Underwood. “One of the reasons we play the toughest schedule we can is to make sure we get ourselves ready for these games.”
Rutgers is 4-3 and also scored a victory for the Big Ten against the ACC with a 74-64 decision over Clemson.
“This is a very good Rutgers team, an NCAA Tournament team that returns a lot, a team in the past we’ve had just battle royales with,” Underwood said. “They are one of the better defensive teams in not just the Big Ten but the country. The physicality piece we have to be ready for.”
The Scarlet Knights are led by 6-foot-6, 245-pound senior Ron Harper Jr. The son of former NBA player Ron Harper contributes 16.1 points and 9.0 rebounds per outing.
Rutgers also boasts 6-11, 240-pound sophomore Clifford Omoruyi (12.0 points, 7.9 rebounds) and 6-4 senior Geo Baker (11.2 points).
"Kofi Cockburn is one of the best pure post-up guys in the country," Rutgers coach Steve Pikiell said. "He's huge. Cliff is going to be tested in a lot of ways and his basketball IQ will really come into fruition in the next couple of games."
Baker has missed the past two games because of injury.
“Baker is one of the better guards in our league,” said Underwood. “If he’s out, they get really big. They get even longer.”
Underwood took note of the Big Ten’s 8-6 win in the series of games with the ACC, the third straight year the Big Ten has prevailed.
“It shut everybody up. We (the conference) had some losses early everybody loves to talk about,” said the Illini coach. “It shows we’re really good again. We’re not afraid to lock horns with anybody.”
Contact Randy Reinhardt at (309) 820-3403. Follow him on Twitter: pg_reinhardt