MEN'S COLLEGE BASKETBALL: Illini seek a Big Ten Tournament ttle

Mar. 14—MINNEAPOLIS — Most people believe that Illinois is locked into a No. 4 seed for the NCAA Tournament when the pairings are announced on Selection Sunday.

So, what difference will it make this weekend if the Illini win all three games or lose the opener?

A lot to coach Brad Underwood.

"I'm playing to win. I'm playing to win every damn game we go out and play," Underwood said. "You can say that it doesn't mean anything and the NCAA Tournament is the NCAA Tournament, but as long as we are playing games that the jersey on the other side says a different university and it's a different color — we are trying to play to win.

"I don't buy all the rest, this and that. I'm there to play to win. I would love to be standing on a ladder, trying to cut down a net on Sunday."

Well, we know how the coach feels, but what about the players for the 13th-rated Illini?

"To win games. The only thing that matters is did you win or not," said graduate senior Marcus Domask. "I don't have a ring yet in college."

Illinois, which earned the second seed with a 14-6 conference record, will open the Big Ten Tournament this Friday night at 5:30 p.m. against either the seventh-seeded Iowa Hawkeyes (18-13) or the 10th-seeded Ohio State Buckeyes (19-12).

"We don't know our opponent, so we're not talking about anyone specifically," said Underwood, admitting Wednesday's practice was going to be more about Illinois (23-8). "We know it's either Iowa, a team that we've seen a couple time in the past 14 days, or Ohio State, a team that's playing really well."

Actually, Iowa is a team that Illinois just beat 73-61 on the road Sunday in the regular-season finale for both teams. The 61 points was a season low for the Hawkeyes, a surprising outcome considering the last six and nine of the last 10 opponents for the Illini had scored 75 or more points.

"I thought we had a tremendous amount of fight and we were really connected on the defensive side. That's a good way to end the season."

Iowa had just 13 free-throw attempts and Illinois enjoyed a 40-30 advantage in defensive rebounds.

"Our record is really, really good when we keep teams off the line and it's really, really good when we defensive rebound like that," Underwood said. "it's not a complicated formula. It's energy and mental focus."

But still, Illinois won't know its quarterfinal round opponent until Iowa and Ohio State play tonight at 5:30 p.m. in the second round.

"We are pretty familiar with Iowa in terms of the mental component," Underwood said. "We played Ohio State a while ago and they are doing a few things differently."

That's because the Buckeyes got rid of head coach Chris Holtmann after playing the Illini and replaced him with interim coach Jake Diebler.

" I think they are playing a little faster," Underwood noted. "They are playing everybody. They are going very deep into their bench and playing a lot of guys, which is probably smart when you are in a coaching change to keep everyone happy. Just play them all."

Both Iowa and Ohio State probably need to at least advance to the Big Ten Tournament championship, if not win the tournament, to get an NCAA Tournament berth.

"Being on the bubble, you are going to find a little bit different energy," Underwood said. "That's one of the things that I was excited about from Sunday's game. Iowa was considered on the bubble and we knew we were a 2-seed in the Big Ten Tournament, regardless, but we still came out and handle business."

The winner of Friday's game will advance to Saturday's semifinals against an opponent to be determined.