During a timeout with 35 seconds left in Wednesday night’s game, Illinois coach Brad Underwood grew increasingly red while chewing out an official. He joined the team huddle only to return on the other side to scream a few more choice words toward the ref.
“I’m a fighter,” Underwood said afterward. “I’m going to be passionate.”
If only Illini fans in Chicago were as passionate as Underwood.
Last season only 5,695 showed up at the UC for a game against New Mexico State in the Illini’s annual Chicago showcase. In 2015, a crowd of 5,151 watched them beat Illinois-Chicago.
Wednesday’s loss was Illinois’ second in a row at the UC. The Illini have dropped six of 10 regular-season games at the Bulls arena since 2010.
“We love Chicago,” Underwood said. “It is our home away from home. If there’s anything, we’re so blessed that the State Farm Center (in Champaign) is a beautiful arena, a beautiful home court. If I had my druthers, we’d play every single game there. We’re proud to be up here.”
So what can Illinois do to make its Chicago game more attractive to its alumni base here?
“Probably people other than me need to answer that,” Underwood said. “If we were 8-0 maybe? Ohio State is one of the elite (Big Ten) opponents. It’s not for the name of the opponent. We’ll control what we can control. When it’s time to play in the United Center, we’ll be here.”
Tickets seem too expensive. Advertising seems sparse. And Underwood is right, a winning season would be a draw.
Until then, maybe Illinois should hold off on this annual trip until the team is humming again.
Underwood said he sees that day coming.
“When it hits, when it turns, it’s going to be really, really special,” he said.
That seems like it’s coming later rather than sooner, though.
The Illini (2-7, 0-2 Big Ten) allowed a six-point second-half lead to slip away to the Buckeyes (8-1, 2-0) by shooting 27.3 percent after halftime. For the game, Illinois made only 9 of 22 layups.
Underwood was particularly heated after a questionable foul call on Trent Frazier, his fifth with less than a minute remaining. Frazier also was called for a particularly laughable charge in the first half.
Underwood was considerably calmer after the game, joking with reporters about not drawing a fine from the Big Ten for criticizing officials.
“I thought they were great officials on the court,” Underwood said with a note of sarcasm and a smirk. “That’s the best we’ve had. I loved every one of them and every call they made.
“My wife is standing back there,” he said, nodding to the back of the room. “‘Just $10,000’ to her is a lot of money.”
Frazier, who scored 18 points to match Kipper Nichols as the only Illini player in double figures, had left the game with 1:19 remaining after falling hard on his tailbone. Teammates huddled around him and Underwood checked on him under the hoop. Frazier struggled to walk off the court, but after a quick trip to the locker room, he returned and checked into the game.
“I saw the look on his face,” Underwood said. “That’s a terrible, terrible feeling. I imagine he’s sore. But it brought a smile to my face to see him come back out.”
The Illini fans at the United Center cheered heartily for him. And they booed lustily when Frazier fouled out on the disputed call.
There just weren’t enough of them.