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Notes: Illinois already putting Sanderson to work

Mar. 15—MINNEAPOLIS — Jon Sanderson spent the half hour after Illinois' 77-74 win against Ohio State stretching out several Illinois players in the locker room. The Illini's new sports performance consultant spent a little extra time with Marcus Domask after the veteran guard played 36 of 40 minutes Friday night. Ty Rodgers got similar treatment after played 32 minutes.

Illinois certainly put Sanderson right to work. The former Michigan strength and conditioning coach was only officially announced as the Illini's newest staffer on Thursday evening. His role at Illinois — working in tandem with strength and conditioning coach Adam Fletcher — is mostly a stopgap before some other team inevitably hires him to run their sports performance program.

Not that Sanderson can't have a significant impact in a short amount of time.

"I know how much he's respected throughout the basketball side of things," Illinois coach Brad Underwood said. "A guy to give us little input, a little bit of help. Something different that may help all of us. To see the camaraderie that he and Fletch have, he's walked in here and it's like old home week. ... Great personality, great character and, obviously, great at his job."

★ ★ ★

The discussion after Illinois' home loss to Purdue on March 5 centered on winning plays. Mostly how the Boilermakers made them down the stretch in their 77-71 victory in Champaign and the Illini didn't.

The scenario was reversed Friday against Ohio State. Illinois tracked down the loose balls. Hauled in the offensive rebounds. Made the effort plays that helped keep the Buckeyes at bay long enough to finish off a come-from-behind win.

"Those are games that you look back on — those close games — where you fine tune the mistakes and figure out what you did wrong," Illinois guard Luke Goode said about the Purdue game. "That one didn't send us home. This one could have. That's the growth this team has had. Purdue got offensive rebounds down the stretch, and that was the big thing. (Friday), Coleman (Hawkins) was getting offensive rebounds."

Hawkins had two significant offensive rebounds in the final 32 seconds to keep an Illinois possession alive. A possession that ultimately ended in a pair of Terrence Shannon Jr. free throws that gave Illinois its winning three-point margin.

"He was the best player on the court," Underwood said. "It was about winning. A lot of Coleman's stuff is because he's competitive. Coleman hates to lose. Those plays were elite — the offensive rebounds, the defensive plays. It's nice to see a senior do that."

★ ★ ★

Illinois closed out Friday's win just before 8 p.m. The nature of the Big Ten tournament means a quick turnaround with Saturday's semifinal tipping off at roughly 2:30 p.m. Underwood isn't concerned about his team's ability to handle that from a physical standpoint.

"Most of these guys can go play pick-up games for hours upon hours every day and not think anything about it," the Illinois coach said. "Yeah, you've got to handle some recovery things, but it becomes very mental. I don't want to downplay fatigue, but Fletch has our guys in great shape.

"It becomes more about the mental — the quick change, the scouting report detail, the possession-by-possession detail. You go from one style to another. That's where you've got to be really good. You can't give up baskets on out of bounds plays because you forgot a scout."

Part of that mental approach was celebrating the quarterfinal win Friday night until the team left the locker room. Then the focus shifted.

"When you play in a tournament and have games the very next day, it's easy to kind of get caught up in the social media world after games," Domask said. "Everybody is hitting you up. I think having that approach that you're on to the next one right after it ends (is important). You don't even have the night to enjoy it. You've got to move on."

★ ★ ★

Illinois fans outnumbered Ohio State fans at the Target Center — by a significant margin — but the crowd paled in comparison to typical Friday night quarterfinal games in either Chicago or Indianapolis. The upper deck was sparsely filled, but there were plenty of empty seats in the lower level, too.

"It is what it is," Underwood said. "I'm a huge fan — a huge proponent — of conference tournaments being for the fans. I think fans should have the opportunity to get to places, to buy tickets especially if your team gets hot, and have access to getting in and out in an easy way."

The Big Ten has yet to announce where next season's conference tournament will be held. Chicago and Indianapolis are the traditional sites, but the Big Ten has moved its tournament following previous expansion. Could a move West come in conjunction with the addition of Southern California, UCLA, Oregon and Washington?

Location matters for a conference with teams on both coasts. Especially with the Sunday afternoon timing of the championship game that leads directly into the NCAA tournament selection show.

"We do play the last game on Sunday," Underwood said. "So being able to get from one site to another site and home and knowing you're going to be home really late and then leaving really quick, I think location is huge in the future."

★ ★ ★

Shannon scored seven of Illinois' 10 fast-break points against Ohio State. That's not an outlier. Shannon is the Illini's biggest threat in transition with the speed and strength that makes him one of the most effective transition scorers in the country.

"My first thought every time I touch the ball on an outlet or rebound is, 'Where's TJ and can I get it to him?'" Domask said. "He's electric in transition. Guys are just going to foul him when he goes, so we definitely try to find him."

Hawkins takes a similar approach.

"I'm a willing passer," the Illinois forward said. "Whoever it is, I'll pitch it ahead, but usually when I do see Terrence I try to get him the ball as soon as possible. He's really strong and super fast, so when he does get to the rim he has that change in direction that's so quick and that extra speed coming straight at you is hard to guard. A lot of teams are back pedaling trying to get back and they're worried about protecting the basket. It's difficult for teams to stop him because he's so strong and he finishes so well."

Underwood wants Shannon to channel his inner Ayo Dosunmu. The former Illini turned Chicago Bulls guard was successful in transition during his college career because of how well he rebounded.

"Ayo figured out defensive rebounding," Underwood said. "That's how he got triple-doubles. Ayo figured out he was a one-man fast break. We're trying to get Terrence to continue to believe in that."

Shannon had three rebounds against Ohio State, with just one coming on the defensive end.

"He did it three times in the Iowa game where he defensive rebounded, and it was like he was shot out of a cannon," Underwood said. "His speed and his ability to maneuver in the open court is very special. There's very few like him in the college game."

★ ★ ★

Illinois didn't have its typical full complement offensively. Shannon topped his season average, but Domask was limited to just seven points on 3-of-16 shooting. Dain Dainja's effort off the bench filled the void — reinforcing that the Illini have options.

"Everybody is going to try and take away your No. 1 option," Underwood said. "You've got to be able to have multiple options. You've got to be a able to have a guy — or two. I like the fact we can play multiple ways. I think we can put a five-out lineup that can all shoot it. We can put some size out there. I like our versatility on that end a great deal. That's what we've been playing for — to have that versatility."

Scott Richey