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Eboigbodin humbled and growing in Illinois’ starting lineup

Spicy G didn't think he’d start once. Then, he started twice.

NCAA Basketball: Illinois at Michigan State Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

Freshman forward Greg Eboigbodin received an opportunity earlier this month that he never thought he would have in his first season as an Illini.

To be in the starting lineup at the Division I level.

“It’s a dream come true,” Eboigbodin said. “Wouldn’t wish Michael (Finke) to be injured, but when he was down, Coach (Brad Underwood) just said I was going to start for those two games... I never thought I was going to start any games (as a) freshman.”

Junior forward Michael Finke suffered a concussion in practice on Feb. 10.

Eboigbodin received the first start of his young career against Penn State at State Farm Center the next day. While he didn’t manage to score in his 21 minutes of play, Eboigbodin did have an effect on the glass, collecting six rebounds — three of which were offensive.

The first start is another step forward in Eboigbodin’s progression and the development of what many people around the program call his “raw” game.

“He’s young, and he has a lot of work to do, and he knows that,” said junior forward Aaron Jordan. “We have a great coaching staff and teammates around him to help him get to where he wants to be.”

Despite signing with Illinois in early June and not knowing what his role was going to be, Eboigbodin has not allowed uncertainty to affect his confidence.

He put his confidence on display when he posted up Michigan State forward Jaren Jackson Jr. in East Lansing on Tuesday night.

Jackson, a projected lottery pick in this year’s NBA Draft, swatted five Illini shots in the Spartans’ 20-point victory.

Yet, Eboigbodin — often called ‘Spicy G’ — tried to take Jackson in the post. On three separate occasions Eboigbodin received the post-entry pass. While the Detroit native couldn’t score on any of the opportunities, Illinois head coach Brad Underwood said seeing this aggressive type of play from him is a good sign.

He now just needs more experience under his belt.

“It’s different for (Eboigbodin) because he doesn’t see the size we face in practice, so he’s very, very good and comfortable in practice,” Underwood said. “And now we get in games against legit size, it’s a little different for him. It’s a learning experience and a growing pain.”

Nonetheless, Underwood is pleased with the job Eboigbodin’s done during Finke’s absence.

“He fights, he competes as he continues to develop in terms of understanding the game and positioning,” Underwood said.

“You throw a freshman out there to go battle against some of the best players in America, and he’s doing that.”

While Underwood wants Finke back soon, Eboigbodin has been able to bring a different skill set to the table.

Finke can space the floor because of his shooting ability, and he is also the vocal leader of this Illini team. Eboigbodin, on the other hand, brings some more traditional big-man qualities to the game, such as being a paint presence on both ends of the court.

“Defense, I like to help to help a lot, defense is one of my strong suits,” Eboigbodin said. “With me on the floor with the other guys, I just feel like there’s a lot of balance on the defensive end.”

On offense, Eboigbodin is very modest about his capabilities, saying he doesn’t add too much.

Underwood disagrees. He says Eboigbodin does a great job of rim-running — getting open at the rim after setting a screen during a pick-and-roll.

The first-year head coach also didn’t forget to credit Eboigbodin’s defensive abilities, saying he has a chance to become an elite defender on that end.

Reflecting on his first season of collegiate basketball, Eboigbodin never saw any of this happening to him.

“I’ve never dreamt of starting, never thought of that, but it happened so I can look back to and like, ‘whoa, I started a Big Ten game, I started two games freshman year.’” Eboigbodin said.

“It’s something I’m really happy about. It’s going to be apart of my memory, and I won’t forget that.”