CHAMPAIGN (WCIA) — The first official Illinois basketball practice tipped on Wednesday, exactly six weeks ahead of the scheduled start date to the season, Nov. 25. There’s plenty of hype surrounding this team, with so many players returning, led by Ayo Dosunmu and Kofi Cockburn. The national pundits have certainly heaped praise on the Illini, putting them in their Top 10 preseason rankings. Illinois head coach Brad Underwood said he’s not running from expectations but also wants his guys to keep it in perspective.
“We can’t listen to all the outside noise,” he said. “We can’t listen to all the hoopla around the ranking, I do think our culture is in a good place. Now you’ve got to go from the hunter to the hunted and understand that the bullseye is on your back. How do you handle that?”
Underwood said his fourth team has been impacted by COVID-19, with players sitting out of preseason workouts, but he decided not shut down the program.
“To think that we’re not going to have cases would be pretty foolish on my part I think,” Underwood said on an hour plus long Zoom call with media. “I think we all understand in college sports now people are going to be out and going to miss time. But we’ve dealt with it and dealt with it in an unbelievable way.”
Underwood did not confirm any positive cases. The University of Illinois is not making those numbers available to the public and has no plans to do so in the future, a spokesperson told WCIA 3 on Wednesday. Underwood did say his team is healthy now though, after dealing with several “issues” this summer.
“When we’ve had issues, we’ve chose not to stop our program,” said Underwood. “We’ve dealt with the quarantine and yet whether it was in June or July, we had a great month of July into August up until the start of school. Then we saw a little bit of a hiccup here or there where guys were out. Then the Big Ten announced the myocarditis testing, so we had some athletes who had to wait and go through all of that.
“I think the one thing that’s happened is that we’ve learned and it’s been extremely educational for all of our athletes to know what quarantine looks like and feels like, it’s not fun, it’s miserable. We’ve had some now understand what the myocarditis testing is and the process of what it would be like to be out 21 days. So when we talk about keeping your circles tight and not letting anybody else in and masking up and washing your hands all the time and understanding that those are circumstances that are sometimes out of our control but it’s always at the forefront of what we’re doing and talking about.”
The Illini players, coaches and immediate staff test everyday for COVID-19. It has impacted nearly every part of the normal routine of college sports. The basketball team is not using its locker room to promote social distancing. Instead, tables are set up across the Ubben basketball facility for guys to change and keep their belongings. Up until recently, players were not allowed to shower at the facility, now only a few can clean up at one time. No meals are shared as a team, with grab and go options available, and all players, minus two, are living together. Despite all the change, Underwood is confident the season will start on time.
“Without a doubt, the season will start on November 25th,” he said. “I’m a big proponent of playing (this season), knowing it’s not going to be perfect. We’re doing it in a way that’s extremely safe and well thought out. I’m excited that we’re tackling it and getting after it.”
No schedule has been released and Underwood had no timeline for when it will be announced. Several national reporters have sourced the Illini hosting their own multi-team event (MTE) at State Farm Center Nov. 25-27. Matt Norlander from CBS Sports announced Wright State, Ohio and North Carolina A&T will be coming to Champaign for the round-robin format. Meanwhile, Jeff Goodman from Stadium, is reporting the team will take part in the Jimmy V Classic, facing Baylor Dec. 2 in Orlando at Disney World.