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Illini basketball logging plenty of early-season miles

CHAMPAIGN — Illinois men’s basketball has racked up the miles in the first full month of the season. Playing in the Maui Invitational — a nearly 8,400-mile round trip — skews those numbers, but the Illini have been away from State Farm Center more than they’ve played on their home court so far.

The last nine days have meant trips to South Bend, Ind., Lincoln, Neb., and now Chicago for today’s 6 p.m. “home” game against No. 19 Ohio State (7-1, 1-0 Big Ten) at the United Center.

“It’s great; it’s terrific,” Illinois coach Brad Underwood said about today’s game in the Windy City while lacking 100 percent conviction in those words.”It will be a great opportunity to get on that court — we play our conference tournament there. I’m obviously very, very prejudiced toward the State Farm Center. This place is spectacular. It’s one of the best home courts in the country. I hope fans come out in Chicago. I hope they come support us. It’s a home away from home.”

Illinois (2-6, 0-1) has played three true home games out of its eight total. Only four of the 74 other power six programs — Minnesota, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Stanford — have spent less time at home in the first full month of the season with two home games apiece. The Gophers played the Cowboys close to home Friday at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis.

Nineteen power six programs, including six in the SEC and six in the Big 12, have yet to play a true road game this season. Texas Christian, in fact, has played all six of its games at Schollmaier Arena in Fort Worth.

Underwood referenced the schedule a similarly young Notre Dame team has played. The Fighting Irish played their first seven games in South Bend — including a 76-74 win against the Illini on Nov. 27 — and left Purcell Pavilion for the first time Tuesday for its Jimmy V Classic showdown with Oklahoma at Madison Square Garden in New York City.

“We’ve played arguably the toughest schedule in the country,” Underwood said. “Being on the road hasn’t helped. I’ve had enough hotel omelets to last for a while, and now here we go again. It’s something most years doesn’t happen. You’re 6-0 or 6-1 and you’ve played one or two high majors.”

Instead, Illinois has traveled nearly 10,000 miles and played six high-major teams, including now No. 1 Gonzaga. And how does Underwood feel?

“I like where we’re at,” he said. “This sounds crazy, (but) instead of being 6-1 and playing nobody or undefeated and playing nobody, at least we know. At least we know. We’ve been on the road and played a high-level opponent. We played the best team in the country. We’ve played back-to-backs. We’ve seen great bigs. We’ve seen great guards.

“There’s not going to be any surprises. We have seen it. Now we’ve got to figure out how to win them, and we’ve got to be tough enough to do that. It helps playing the Gonzagas and the Xaviers and the teams we’ve played because we’ve seen a little bit of everything. We’re not going in without understanding who we are and what we’re up against.”

Underwood said he’s seen a disappointed, but determined, locker room after Illinois’ losses this season. That held true Sunday in Lincoln.

The new-to-the-Big Ten Illini, which is most of them, also got a better idea of what Big Ten games are all about after losing 75-60 to Nebraska.

“After this game I think they’ve realized — and I’ve expressed to them — conference is a whole different beast,” redshirt junior forward Kipper Nichols said after he scored 12 points off the bench against the Cornhuskers. “We’ve played a great nonconference schedule thus far, but no matter what the name says on the other jersey in Big Ten play, it’s always going to be a battle.”

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