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- American basketball coach
Illinois did not schedule any weekday games this week to give its players a chance to focus on final exams.
But as the Fighting Illini (7-3) prepared for Saturday's visit from St. Francis (Pa.), it would be dead wrong to suggest head coach Brad Underwood took it easy on his players. Consider that after last Saturday's home loss to then-No. 11 Arizona, Underwood threw around the word "soft" to describe his team's performance.
"We tried to be sensitive to their time schedules," Underwood said. "We tried to be sensitive to their academic load. And, yet, when we were on the court, there was very little that was not very competitive (and) very intense. And accountability was demanded.
"We were on alert. So I think that helped refocus in some certain areas we tried to hit."
Underwood wasn't as worried about the offense. With Kofi Cockburn ruling the post (21.4 points, 12.0 rebounds per game) and 3-point savant Alfonso Plummer (16.7 points per game) riding six consecutive 20-plus scoring efforts, Illinois ranks No. 15 nationally in offensive efficiency, according to KenPom.com.
But Illinois' defense ranks No. 36. That's insufficient, particularly when compared to last year's squad that finished No. 7 in the KenPom rankings.
"We really tried to focus in on some specific things on the defensive end we had to get cleaned up," Underwood said. "The continuity of having everybody in practice this week has been very beneficial."
Saturday's visit from St. Francis (4-5) starts a three-game nonconference stretch before Illinois resumes Big Ten play in earnest with a Jan. 2 trip to Minnesota.
The Red Flash get their second and final chance to challenge a power-conference opponent. In their first opportunity, Virginia Tech dealt them an 85-55 defeat on Nov. 18.
But St. Francis arrives in Champaign feeling good after earning an 81-66 win Tuesday at Hartford in the inaugural Jack Phelan Classic, which honored the late coach who's a member of both schools' athletic Hall of Fame.
"At the end of the day," said St. Francis coach Rob Krimmel, "being able to finish some plays and get some stops that we needed is something that we can build on and we look forward to our next opportunity."
Fifth-year senior point guard Ramiir Dixon-Conover paces St. Francis in scoring (14.4 points) and leads the Northeast Conference in assists (4.3) and steals (2.5) per game. Josh Cohen (13.3 points per game) ranks second nationally in field-goal percentage (.738), but the 6-foot-10, 220-pound sophomore has yet to face someone of Cockburn's size.
"This is a very, very good offensive team," Underwood said. "They've got very big, physical guards that can get downhill."
--Field Level Media