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‘Day one was pretty good’: Underwood leads hungry Illini into tough season

Less than a month away...

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament First Round Pittsburgh Practice Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

On Sept. 22, the full Big Ten basketball schedule was released, giving the Illinois men’s basketball team a complete outlook on the upcoming season.

Head coach Brad Underwood held a press conference on Monday to give some insight into what his team is made of... and his answers will make you want to run through a brick wall.

Tough Schedule

The Illinois non-conference schedule was released in late July, giving fans an exciting set of games to prepare for in the early months of the college basketball season.

However, with exciting matchups there comes more competitive opponents. The Illini — at least on paper — will be facing their most difficult non-conference slate in over a decade.

After a few smaller teams make up the Illinois opponents in the first half of November, things start getting real. In the Continental Tire Event, the Illini face off against the Johnny Juzang-led UCLA team that was highly ranked for most of last season. The other two teams in the mix are Baylor and Virginia, both of whom have won a national championship in the last 3 seasons.

Along with a Big Ten/ACC Challenge matchup against the legendary program of Syracuse, the Illini also play Texas in the Jimmy V Classic at Madison Square Garden.

For an Illinois team that has only 3 returning players who saw significant playing time last season, this schedule is anything but easy. While some fans may approach this schedule with some skepticism, Underwood is not worried in the slightest.

“We’ve got a great schedule; we’re excited about the challenges that lie ahead in the early part of the season,” Underwood said. “That will test us.”

A young team such as this Illini squad will need some learning opportunities heading into a tough Big Ten schedule, where they face the likes of Ohio State and Indiana twice.

“That’s what we schedule these games for: to get tested,” Underwood said, “so we know that come January and February, we’re continuing to get better.”

The conference schedule also features road games at Purdue and Iowa, and a home game against Michigan.

“We’ve got to get seasoned in a hurry,” Underwood said. “Can’t go out and play a bunch of cupcakes.”

A New Team

With fifth-year seniors like Trent Frazier, Da’Monte Williams and Alfonso Plummer leaving the Illini after the 2021-22 season — don’t worry, I didn’t forget Kofi — the Illini will be without their entire starting five from a year ago.

In preparation for the season, Underwood started practices again on Monday, and he’s thrilled with what he sees from the new guys.

“This group has a young eagerness and energy about them that is exciting,” Underwood said. “They’re excited to learn.”

Although top-tier recruits Skyy Clark, Jayden Epps, and Sencire Harris headline the Illinois backcourt, they lack college experience. Transfers like Dain Dainja, Matthew Mayer and Terrence Shannon Jr. lack experience within the Illini system as well.

However, Underwood sees this as an opportunity to do the job he loves.

“Physically we won’t have a lot of limitations there,” Underwood said. “We have to continue to strive to push them through mistakes and not lose confidence.”

Mayer Injury Update

Fifth-year senior Matthew Mayer was a big part of the Baylor national championship team in 2021, and after transferring to Illinois, Mayer will be a main source of leadership for a young and hungry Illini squad.

However, his beginning with Illinois didn’t go as he and Underwood hoped. Over the summer, Mayer was limited with significant back injuries, but he’s spent his time at Illinois up until now fighting to get better.

“(Mayer) wasn’t in great shape when he came in,” Underwood said. “He has worked really hard at that aspect of it.”

From his hard work, Mayer is seeing results. In the past two weeks, he’s been working out and practicing at full speed with the rest of the team.

The Illini begin the season with an exhibition match against Quincy on Oct. 28 at State Farm Center.