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“Energy” and “upside” at start of Illinois Basketball practices

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Coach Underwood recaps Illinois’ first official practice.

Illini Basketball Twitter (@IlliniMBB)

By now, most Illinois fans have seen the clip from practice Tuesday morning of freshman Ayo Dosunmu hitting fellow freshman Tevian Jones for a beautiful fastbreak alley-oop. But if you haven’t — or just want to watch it for the 86th time — we’re fine with whatever excuse to show it again.

We love it. And Head Coach Brad Underwood does too.

“I’m excited for this group, I love this group,” Underwood said Tuesday morning. “This group has unbelievable energy, and so much upside that you really look forward to working with them. Today was good, it wasn’t great. Today was a day where you saw glimpses of what we could do in certain areas.

“There’s a lot of work. There’s a lot of patience on my part. The upside to this is really, really good. We competed at a level that I haven’t seen since I’ve been here – in practice. Our veterans should be given a lot of that credit, but it’s also the younger guys that know how to win and fight. I loved what we did in our competitive drills today. Now, it’s step-by-step, and we’ve got 29 more before we throw it up for real. We’ll be a little slow in this first week and a half.”

Underwood seems particularly excited with where his groups sits compared to this time last season.

“We fought for our culture last year on a daily basis,” he said. “[This year] doesn’t feel anything like that. I promise you that. It’s not even close. I got six guys, Drew [Cayce} and Tyler [Underwood] included, who know what we’re doing. And they’re leading. They’re helping, so it doesn’t feel anywhere close to (last season.)”

Although, attitude and effort isn’t something he’s had to drill home with this year’s team, there are certain aspects he’d like clean up before the Illini take the floor for their first exhibition Nov. 2 against Illinois Wesleyan.

“We’ve made one big change this year, bringing officials in,” Underwood said. “Officials are at our practice every day. We’re trying to help our guys recognize fouls, what they can and cannot do. Hopefully, that will help come game time, understanding what a hand check is, or what the cylinder is. We’ll see how that progresses.”

And with two freshmen missing summer practices with the team and guys returning from injuries, Underwood has had to be patient this offseason.

“Hopefully, we can absorb some things mentally, but we’ve got to get better,” he said. “[Strength coach Adam Fletcher] does an unbelievable job, and I think he’d be the first to tell you that we’re in good shape, but we’re not in great shape yet. We’ve got to get that.”

But if there’s one freshman who’s earned as much praise as anyone from Underwood, it’s the big man from Georgia, Giorgi Bezhanishvili.

“Giorgi is a guy that has tremendous feet. He can really run,” Underwood said. “I think he was second in our timed mile, behind Trent. Trent ran 5:12 I think, and Giorgi ran 5:18, which for 6-foot-10, 240 is picking ‘em up and putting ‘em down pretty quick. He’s really strong. We’ve got to get Giorgi to be really consistent in terms of not fouling. Giorgi doesn’t run from contact, he initiates it — sometimes to a fault. He probably set three or four illegal screens today, just because he wants to make sure he hits somebody. Those are nice problems to have, but we have to make sure he’s on the court for us because he’s a guy that gives us a lot of versatility.”

Having guys like Aaron Jordan, Adonis De La Rosa, and Kipper Nichols can be crucial for the underclassmen as they make their transition to the big stage. Jordan and De La Rosa are the lone seniors on the team, and Nichols is one of just two players left from the John Groce era.

A Kent State grad transfer, De La Rosa is still nursing an ACL injury, but that hasn’t stopped him from making an impact with this group already.

“He’s been awesome,” Underwood said. “He’s very disciplined. The thing I like about Adonis is that he’s a savant. He’s a basketball genius. As you watch, he’s talking, he’s communicating. He knows everything we’re doing already. He’s really, really dialed into that.”

With Jordan, he doesn’t just fill a “sharpshooter” role with the team. He’s more than a leader’ he’s a guy who bleeds orange and blue and cares about the future of the program.

“The thing that I’ve said many times, if (the freshmen) fall in love with Illinois the way Aaron Jordan has fallen in love with Illinois, they’re going to be great players,” Underwood said. “A.J. plays for the name on the front, and he is all about everything that we are about. Buy-in is critical, and that’s what I love about all of our veterans, not just A.J.. That’s what the new guys have to get to, and we’re not far off.”

Kipper Nichols was a forward last year who provided a spark for the Illini offensively. Twice last season, he put up 25-plus points, including a 27-point performance in just 22 minutes against No. 6 Michigan State. But twice last year, he didn’t even find the scoring column. Illinois will need him to step up and be a consistent threat this year, or the Illini will have to lean on a newcomer to assist Trent Frazier on the offensive front.

“(Kipper’s) been great,” Underwood said. “He’s had as good a summer as anybody. We’ve asked him to lean up. Kipper can play any of the frontcourt positions. He’s strong as an ox. He’s moving better. He’s jumping better. We all know he’s a very capable offensive player. We have to demand more from him on the defensive end, and he expects that from himself. All of our veterans have been spot-on in my perspective, in terms of leadership, and changing the culture in that locker room. That’s what excites me.”

Underwood also had high praise for his new lead guards, Dosunmu and JUCO transfer Andres Feliz.

On Feliz, Underwood said: “He adds maturity, very high IQ, very savvy. He doesn’t get sped up, which is very rare. It’s very hard – for guards especially – to not play fast. He’s got enough experience that he just plays with great flow and pace, no matter what the defense does. He’s an incredible intangible guy. And yet, he’s a guy, when you look down, every night he’s got 20. He makes the right pass, he gets the rebound, and he’s got tremendous grit as a defender. That’s going to be nice to have.”

Dosunmu’s debut has been the source of much anticipation this offseason. He spearheaded Illinois’ 25th-ranked recruiting class. Illini fans were treated to an encore performance when Dosunmu took home gold with the U18 U.S.A. National Team at the FIBA Americas World Championship.

“He’s tough. He’s got pride, so he really cares at (the defensive) end,” Underwood said. “That’s a great start. Secondly, he’s got length. It’s a challenge for people. He’s got very quick hands, and he’s got long arms, so he’s great at reading and anticipating. He’s got to learn our system, which he’s doing, but he’s going to be a guy that can really, really guard the ball. And I think he’s going to be a guy that can really, really deny and be aggressive on the defensive end. He’s got to learn how to play against major college talent every day. He and Trent have pretty good battles going. If you can guard Trent Frazier, you can guard a lot of guys.”

Other Notable Quotes from Tuesday’s Practice:

On team’s mindset...

“They’re winners. Winners do what you have to do to win. It doesn’t always have to be explained, and it doesn’t always have to be demanded. I’m going to demand it anyway, but it’s something that is innate. I didn’t have to get on any of those guys today about playing hard. They just know how to do it because winning is important to them. Are there going to be bad days? Absolutely. But I can coach basketball now, and we can start working on fundamental things to help them improve, and scouting, and so forth. Plus, I have veterans who also know now, and that’s why they’re here. When I talked about winning, winners are special people. They know what it takes to win. With a guy like Ayo, he’s turned that thing up another gear within the last 10 days because he knows the season is close. You don’t have to get on those guys near as much.”

On establishing an identity...

“I think anytime I can go out into the Illinois community, our fans, our other coaches in the state, and I don’t get a definitive answer on ‘What does Illinois basketball stand for,’ that’s a problem. You know every time you face some of the best teams in the country what you’re getting. That’s what I want. When you think of Illinois basketball, I want you to think that we play hard, that there’s a team that leaves it on the line every time, they play for the name on the front, they’re going to execute and not turn the ball over. I want you to think of that and people to know that. That’s what I’m striving for every day is for our identity to be a no-brainer, the first thing that comes out of people when we ask ‘what do you think of when you think of Illinois basketball?’ That’s when we’ll have arrived, when we get that put in place.”