Underwood shakes up rotation, Moretti shines

Feb. 24—CHAMPAIGN — Brad Underwood spent the nearly four minutes he had the entirety of his starting lineup on the bench early in the second half of Saturday's game against Iowa stalking up and down the sideline.

The Illinois men's basketball coach didn't let his starters sit idly by. Every trip up to the end of the bench and back to his seat closer to the scorer's table included a reminder — a loud one — about why they weren't playing. That not getting on the floor for loose balls wasn't OK. That giving up rebound after rebound to the Hawkeyes wasn't OK.

"I had seen enough with that group," Underwood said. "Their butt needed to find the bench. They needed to understand it's not acceptable and playing time is not a given thing just because you average this or you've been out there."

That decision helped stem an Iowa rally to start the second half. The full-on line change wasn't a fleeting moment either. Underwood eventually turned back to his starters, but he continued to mix and match in his rotation more than he had all season, as No. 12 Illinois got back on track following Wednesday's disappointing loss at Penn State with a 95-85 victory against Iowa in front of another sellout crowd at State Farm Center.

A crowd of 15,544 that had just as much expectation that Niccolo Moretti would play 17 minutes, make a pair of critical three-pointers and be in the group that closed out the win as the redshirt freshman guard himself.

Moretti had played in just five previous Big Ten games — typically at the end of blowout wins — before Saturday. His 17 minutes on the court against Iowa nearly matched the 19 total minutes he played in those same five games. And his nine points were his first in a conference game since scoring two at Michigan in mid-January when he returned after missing 11 games because of a foot injury suffered in mid-November.

Moretti described how he played Saturday against Iowa as "needed" given the injury he sustained and what it took to get back to a point he could play 17 minutes, sink consecutive three-pointers that gave Illinois a lead and play well enough defensively for Underwood to leave him in to close out the win for No. 12 Illinois (20-7, 11-5 Big Ten).

"What I went through with this season with the injury, it was hard," Moretti said. "I came in the gym more than everybody else. With treatment and then with time coming back. It was hard mentally.

"Didn't expect that much, but I'm always trying to stay ready for every game and stay mentally focused and dialed in. I've been working hard since my injury. I think I proved all my work I've put in."

How Moretti handled his injury and full return-to-play process resonated with Underwood. The Illinois coach noticed the extra lifting sessions Moretti got in with strength and conditioning coach Adam Fletcher. Noticed that the Bologna, Italy, native showed up every day and put in the same effort even when he wasn't playing after getting healthy.

"What an unbelievable teammate and what an unbelievable statement for every basketball player out there no matter what level you are," Underwood said. "When you're time comes and you're needed, can you help your team win because you're prepared? I'm sure he went in (Saturday) not saying, 'Oh, I'm playing (17) minutes.' He had no idea.

"That's the ultimate teammate. It's the ultimate mental approach staying ready, and he has handled that as perfectly as any player I've been around. That was awesome. That was fun to see."

Still, leaning on Moretti wasn't Underwood's plan heading into Saturday's game against the Hawkeyes (16-12, 8-9). Neither was counting on productive minutes from that second group that also included Justin Harmon, Amani Hansberry, Dain Dainja and Luke Goode. Harmon didn't miss a shot and finished with 12 points. Dainja had a team-high eight rebounds along with six points.

"I don't go in with a plan," Underwood said. "I go in to win. We have had a unique season in the fact we haven't been really healthy and whole and we've had some other issues. We've had to do what we had to do to survive and win. It's nice to be getting back there a little bit. It gives me comfort to see them do it. I'm not saying it's planned, but it's nice to know it worked out."

Underwood said the bench can "be a good motivator." It worked with Harmon, who is typically one of the first players off the bench and sat most of the first half, and it worked with the starters following their early second-half trip en masse back to the bench.

"At first, it's just frustrating," said Coleman Hawkins, who rallied late to finish with a career-high 30 points for the Illini. "You see yourself coming out and wish you could flip it right there and just get a second chance. You've got to come out the game and support the guys that are on the court. Just be positive. That's what we did. We knew we'd get back in there. We knew those guys would play hard. We just tried to support them as much as we can. I thought they did a really good job of just going out there and playing hard."