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‘There’s a formula there’: Illinois finding success away from home

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The Illini have more Big Ten road wins than any team over the last two seasons.

NCAA Basketball: Maryland at Illinois Ron Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

No team in the Big Ten has won as many conference games as the Illini since the 2019-20 season. And no Illinois team in the history of the program has had as many Big Ten wins in any two-season span as the Illini have had over the last two seasons.

There have been 15 road wins.

In what Brad Underwood calls the hardest conference to play in on the road, the Illini have tallied 15 of what they call “roadkills” — four of them against ranked teams.

The Illini are once again off to a good start in the Big Ten, perfect through four conference contests in 2021-22 — two of them road wins (over Iowa and Minnesota). Illinois is once again on the road, heading to Lincoln, Nebraska on Tuesday to take on the Cornhuskers.

So what exactly is it that allows the Illini to have such success regardless of location?

“I think there’s a formula there,” said Illini head coach Brad Underwood. “It’s been good rebounding and some sound defense. That’s the one thing that travels.”

In two Big Ten road games this season the Illini have allowed less than 70 points per game and are +55 in the rebound department.

Back in the Top 25

After being unranked for the past six weeks, the Illini are back in the top-25, checking in at no. 25.

However, according to Kenpom and other analytics, the Illini are No. 11 or closer to the top 10.

So which does Brad Underwood prefer? The AP poll or advanced analytics.

“I’d much rather have the analytics than the ranking,” Underwood said. “All I’m worried about is us.”

As turnovers have plagued the Illini, Underwood was quick to add how good the Illini would fare in terms of analytics if they coughed the ball up leess.

“We’d have one of the best 5-6 offensive efficiencies in the country if we didn’t turn those over,” Underwood said. “We’re getting more ball tough.”

Payne stepping up

When Omar Payne was recruited by the Illinois out of the transfer portal from Florida, it was expected that he would be the starting center for the Illini.

That was back when Kofi Cockburn had his name in the NBA Draft and the transfer portal, but now Cockburn is back with Illinois and averaging 22.5 points and 12.5 rebounds per game in about 30 minutes of action.

Unfortunately for Payne, that has left an average of just eight minutes per game for him. But his head coach has seen what he has wanted to out of the big man.

“Impact,” Underwood said. “We felt like he was going to be a really good roller. Defensively [he’s been] everything advertised.”

Back to the analytics...

“If you take his defensive metrics, we gain on the defensive side,” Underwood said.

Curbelo Latest

As has been the norm whenever Brad Underwood meets the media, Illini nation gets a much requested update on the status of point guard Andre Curbelo.

Curbelo’s highly anticipated sophomore season has been a battle through numerous injuries. After suffering a concussion in an exhibition game, the point guard has played in just four games this season — his last on Nov. 23 against Kansas State.

Curbelo is undergoing physical therapy and conditioning drills to return back to the court, and while the Illini have said Curbelo is progressing and do expect him back this season — he will be out against Nebraska.

Despite a report from The Athletic that hinted at a potential return, Underwood said a setback in Curbelo’s rehab keeps him away from the floor for now.

“We will play him however many games are left,” Underwood said, regardless of when Curbelo is ready to get back on the court.

Back-to-back accolades for Cockburn

For the second straight week (that the Illini have played), Kofi Cockburn has been named Big Ten player of the week.

Cockburn won the award the week of Dec. 27 after his 25-point, 14-rebound effort in the Illini’s Braggin’ Rights win over Missouri.

This time around Cockburn shares the honor with Wisconsin’s Johnny Davis, thanks to an average of 26 points and 14 rebounds in two Illini wins this past week.