Nov. 8—CHAMPAIGN — Brad Underwood got the best of both worlds Monday night.
The Illinois men's basketball team won its season opener against Eastern Illinois on a night when not all Big Ten teams could claim the same. That matters. The folks in East Lansing, Mich., and Piscataway, N.J., can't be feeling quite as good now as they were 48 hours ago. But the Illini had enough struggles against the Panthers — particularly in a worrisome first half — that their coach won't run out of teachable moments before No. 25 Illinois (1-0) gets back on the court for a 7 p.m. Friday tip at State Farm Center against Oakland (0-1).
The disparity in offensive rebounding Monday was among Underwood's primary concerns. Last year's season opener against EIU saw Illinois corral 59 percent of its misses. This year it was just 34 percent, as the Panthers finished with 14 offensive rebounds to the Illini's 10. Just one of which came from a starter.
Poor shooting. Giving up easy looks at the rim. A deficit in energy and effort. It all added up in a slow start for Illinois that flipped late in the first half when Dra Gibbs-Lawhorn took over in a decisive one-minute stretch and Terrence Shannon Jr. asserted himself as the best player on the court.
"It's always great to learn from a win when you don't play well," Underwood said. "We talked ad nauseam about offensive rebounding. We had one offensive rebound from our starters. That will tell you where they were at."
The way Underwood discussed the lead up to Monday's season opener — at least after the fact — the preparation might not have been at a high enough level in the wake of a charity exhibition win against No. 1 Kansas.
"They read all your guys' stuff and started to believe it," the Illinois coach said. "We have new guys and new faces, and they need to learn to handle social media and learn to handle pressure and all the things that go into that. ... You can't rest on the last game. Nobody cares anymore."
Underwood did single out Gibbs-Lawhorn for the freshman guard's practice habits that ultimately spilled over into his official Illinois debut. No one else got that kind of recognition.
"It always comes back to one thing — practice," Underwood said. "You have to practice well to perform well. There's no team in at America at any level — NBA or college — that if you don't practice well you're usually not going to perform very well."
Underwood played 11 of his 12 scholarship players — all but the redshirting Sencire Harris — in the first half trying to figure out a lineup that worked. Illinois doesn't have a set rotation this early in the season, and it could be a moving target this season.
"There's 200 minutes," Underwood said. "If I ask every player how much they think they're worth and added them all up, the number would be double. You want to play? Play better. You want to play? Do what we're supposed to do. You want to play? Practice better.
"It's funny because you look at the plus-minuses and I've been pretty good at playing the right guys the right amount of minutes. We're about trying to win this. I don't know. Some nights somebody might have to play 30."