When Illinois needed them, the Illini's seasoned veterans stepped to the forefront Tuesday night against Nebraska.
It's a luxury Illinois coach Brad Underwood isn't afraid to tout, and he did again after his team put Nebraska away with a 16-6 run over the game's final four minutes in an 81-71 win.
"It’s a wonderful thing. I’ve been blessed in my career to win games and it’s those guys who do it," Underwood said. "(Nebraska has) a special freshman, Bryce (McGowens) is special, but for the most part, you don’t win big games with freshmen. You win with veterans who don’t panic and play in the moment, and we have a couple of those, and they continue to do it for us."
Underwood wasn't trying to knock the way NU coach Fred Hoiberg and his staff have chosen to build their program. There are plenty of ways to do it, and do it successfully. The method Hoiberg is trying to employ at Nebraska worked like a charm at Iowa State.
But the route Underwood chose with Illinois, combined with Tuesday night's result and comments earlier in the day from Nebraska athletic director Trev Alberts, illustrate the gap Nebraska must close if it wants to be more competitive against its Big Ten opponents.
"I’ve talked to Fred about this: For all of our programs, I want to see discipline, fundamentals. I mean, what are the very core things that this place has always been about?" Alberts told the Journal Star on Tuesday. "It’s what I always tell our coaches, is that Nebraskans can identify with a certain type of team.
"We didn’t win every game, but boy you’d better have a program that reflects the values of Nebraskans. All-in, workers, never quit. And, let’s be honest, those are several characteristics that have not always defined the men’s basketball program this year. I think that’s fair."
Underwood builds with freshmen and is able to keep them in the program. The Illini have just three transfers on their roster: two are graduate students and another is a junior. There isn't the roster churn Nebraska has seen over the past three seasons.
And Illinois' most important players are their oldest. Trent Frazier, 23 years old, scored 29 points against Nebraska. Three other rotation players are also 23. Kofi Cockburn is 22. There are just three freshmen on the entire Illinois roster.
How does that add up on the court?
Illinois already has three road wins in the Big Ten this year, or, half as many league wins as Nebraska has overall in the past two-plus seasons. The Illini have won 19 of their last 20 games against Big Ten opponents.
It took time to get there. Underwood was 14-18 in his first season at Illinois, 4-14 in the Big Ten. The next year it was 12-21 and 7-13. In 2019-20, Underwood's third season, the Illini jumped to 21-10 and 13-7. Last year it was 24-7 and 16-4 with a Big Ten Tournament title.
Get old, and stay old, as the saying goes.
"It’s everything you strive for in building a culture ... We’re not a one-and-done program. That isn’t us. We’re a development program. We recruit to that piece," Underwood said. "It’s then getting your program to a point where you do have upperclassmen. I tell our freshmen all the time how blessed they are to be around those veterans and they can learn from.
"That keeps your culture building and running. Do everything that they do because those guys are everything we want to be about."
Illinois' old guys didn't waiver Tuesday. Not when Nebraska sprinted to a 16-4 lead in its home arena. Not when the Huskers rallied to tie the game with four minutes to go. And when the Illini did make their final push, it almost seemed preordained because of how they handled things over the first 36 minutes of the game.
"You don’t have to be 6-foot-11. You don’t have to have a big NIL deal. You can control all of that. None of it is attached to resources. You control that. You control your effort, you control your selfishness, you control your want-to," Alberts said. "I want to see us win the things we can control."
Hoiberg may very well turn things around at Nebraska. The Huskers should get one of their toughest, most experienced players back on the court soon in Trey McGowens. There are games to be won and momentum to be grabbed if NU can commit itself, like seasoned teams do, to doing everything in its power to learn from its mistakes.
In other words, maturing as a basketball team.
"There’s something to that," Hoiberg said of Underwood's comments on experience. "I mean, you can’t use that (inexperience) excuse all year. We’re halfway through our season now. Trent Frazier’s been one of the best guards in this league for a long time, and they put the ball in his hands, ran that little dive action to the pick and roll and trusted that he’d make the right play, and he did, for the most part.
"Hit the big three late to put it out of reach, and got himself to the free throw line there at the end and knocked down his free throws. That’s who that kid has been his whole career."
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