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Illini 'different team' with dialed-in Dainja

Feb. 1—CHAMPAIGN — A healthy Coleman Hawkins isn't the lone cause for the dip in Dain Dainja's playing time during the course of this season. But it's a factor.

Mostly because Hawkins fits better how Illinois coach Brad Underwood wants to play. A versatile 6-foot-10 forward has trumped a more traditional 6-9 big man in the Illini's offensive and defensive schemes. Offensively, Hawkins can vacate the post to let Marcus Domask and Ty Rodgers cook in "booty ball" matchups. Defensively, Illinois can five-way switch with Hawkins at the 5.

But Dainja showed Tuesday night at Ohio State why he was capable of averaging 9.5 points and 5.5 rebounds last season in a bigger role on a different Illinois team.

Foul trouble for Hawkins against the Buckeyes — two in the first half and a quick two more early in the second half — opened the door for a bigger opportunity for Dainja. And the Brooklyn Park, Minn., native made the most of it with seven points and five rebounds. It didn't come anywhere close to a season-high effort and fell well short of his career best, but Dainja still played an important 11 minutes in the Illini's 87-75 road victory.

"Dain hasn't been getting a ton of minutes with the way we've been playing," Illinois coach Brad Underwood said. "For him to answer the call and be ready speaks volumes to who he is as a person and what a great teammate he is. Couldn't be more proud of him.

"Dain's been there, done that. Dain's been a really good player in this league. Although things have shifted a little bit in terms of style, he's big and strong and can impact the game."

Dainja's 11 minutes were his most since he scored 19 points in 16 minutes during Illinois' 104-71 home win against Fairleigh Dickinson on Dec. 29.

The eight games between that blowout and Tuesday night's Big Ten road win saw him score just 17 total points in 39 minutes.

Dainja credits the work he's put in before, during and after practice for being ready for the bigger opportunity he had at Ohio State. His pre-practice routine includes going through skill workouts with the Illinois staff. Dainja's post-practice time is devoted to strength and conditioning coach Adam Fletcher.

"Really just my cardio and my conditioning," Dainja said was his focus. "There will be times I might come in for three to four minutes and have to run and rebound. ... I'm still training. I'm getting in the extra time and just staying positive and being there for my teammates."

A more productive Dainja against Ohio State was the result of longer stints of playing time. More time on the court obviously helps, but it's his ability to get in a better rhythm playing more than two to three minutes at a time that helped him against Ohio State.

Dainja averaged 10.3 points and 5.3 rebounds in Illinois' first six games of the season that mostly came without Hawkins, who was dealing with tendinitis in his left knee. The 16 minutes per game Dainja averaged in that stretch included those necessary longer stints on the court.

"When (Underwood) subbed me back in, I started to my rhythm a little bit," Dainja said. He played nine minutes in the second half after Hawkins picked up his third foul and a technical for his fourth consecutively.

"That's how I am," Dainja continued. "As my minutes go up, I get more comfortable out there. ... My opinion, it seemed like the refs were kind of picking on Cole, but he got in foul trouble and I stepped up like any other player off the bench should. I'm just trying to do whatever it takes to help the team win. That's most important."

Three of Dainja's five rebounds against Ohio State came on the offensive end. Only Ty Rodgers had more with four.

"Dain's ability to rebound and his presence down low disturbs teams," Illinois guard Marcus Domask said. "He's by far our biggest, strongest guy. When he plays like he did (Tuesday), we're a different team."

The path forward for more playing time this season — something Underwood said could be necessary this month and next — is likely rooted in Dainja's defense. Illinois can't five-way switch when he's on the court, but he's shown some strength in drop coverage. Just not consistently.

"My biggest thing is watching a lot of film and seeing the mistakes I've been making and breaking the film down to see what I can do better," Dainja said. "Defense is more mental. Coming out of high school, my freshman and sophomore year, I was more offensive minded. One thing I feel like this program has definitely helped me with is taking pride on the defensive side."