Fighting Illini men’s basketball coach Brad Underwood likely has the same concerns any other coach in the NCAA has right now. The pre-pandemic years meant coaches simply needed to worry about winning basketball games. Now, they have to worry about something as simple as players leaving to visit their families for the holidays.
These strange times we live in now made it so that Underwood wasn’t able to allow his players to go home last December due to COVID-19 precautions. This year, though, the athletes will have the luxury – yes, it’s a luxury now – of going home to their families after Wednesday night’s “Braggin Rights” game against Missouri in St. Louis.
At least that was the plan on Tuesday morning but there’s really no certainty as COVID-19 cases are rising amid the omicron variant’s spread.
College basketball is far from the only discipline affected by this new wave of infection and hospitalization. The NFL has moved two games to Tuesday while the NHL has paused its season. The NBA plans to continue but players are entering the league’s health and safety protocol by the day and commissioner Adam Silver is looking to put a contingency plan in place in case games can’t be played on Christmas day.
“Obviously, we all get concerned with guys going home for Christmas,” Underwood lamented.
The Braggin Rights game is expected to go on as planned, though a number of other matchups have been canceled, Memphis vs. Tennessee, Ohio State vs. Kentucky and UCLA vs. North Carolina among them. Duke, Alabama, Seton Hall, and Colorado State are some of the ranked teams that have seen games taken off the schedule that won’t be put back. DePaul has canceled three consecutive fixtures and will have to take on two Big East forfeits that will translate to losses in the standings.
The Big Ten announced at the beginning of the school year that teams that are unable to play conference games due to COVID-19 will be slapped with forfeits. For coaches like Underwood who have seen an 8-3 team battle through a flu bug in the early season, as well as the continued absence of point guard Andre Curbelo, worries are buzzing at an all-time frequency.
“There’s no doubt about that,” he said when quizzed on the situation this week. “The thing that really scares me is games forfeited. We have time to make those up. …
“We’ve got very little information coming at us. That’s where the professional leagues are way ahead of us. We have so many conferences, and who knows if [the Big Ten] will do anything or not do anything [to adapt its policy]? I don’t know. But I know this, I’m really concerned about games being forfeited when we actually have time to make some of those games up.”
Underwood is in favor of teams playing as long as they have enough available players to choose from. Illinois has already had to play a few games when some players, and Underwood himself (non-Covid-19), were ill.
“Our guys are vaxxed, so we’re headed down the right path with that,” he added. “But I had the flu, and we had other guys with it who were out. To me, this is the same thing: Hey, play the games and let’s go.”
Apart from pandemic concerns, there’s also the fact that Illinois hasn’t beaten Missouri in three straight outings. The current Fighting Illini squad will attempt something that hasn’t been done in four years on Wednesday night.
They have a great opportunity to snap the Braggin’ Rights losing streak as they’re due to play the Tigers at what seems to be a perfect time, with Mizzou ranking No.177 out of 358 Division I teams. It’s also a great time to bet on this game with Fanduel sportsbook offering attractive bonuses if you trust your gut on the game. Of course, they aren’t guaranteed a win and will have to get several things right to get one. For one, they’d be in a much better position if they keep it up on the rebounding end of things. They have been collecting more rebounds than the Tigers this season and rank fourth in the nation in the category.
Illinois averages 43.5 rebounds per game while Missouri ranks 103 with 38.1. This is a game that Illinois big man Kofi Cockburn should look to dominate. Cockburn has been hauling 12.0 boards a contest and ranks third among Division I players in rebounding.
e has snatched 57 rebounds in Illinois’ last four games, getting as many as 18 against Arizona.
Guard Da’Monte Williams has been rebounding pretty well this season too, grabbing 5.8 a game.
So, given the losing streak and the possibility of having games forfeited, Underwood simply can’t be blamed for feeling overly anxious right now. Getting it done against Mizzou will have to come first, though.