Starting 5: Here’s what Illinois must do to beat Houston in Round 2 of the NCAA Tournament

Start fast, rebound hard and defend like hell — and that’s just some of it.

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UAB v Houston

Shead is a highly efficient point guard for Houston.

Photo by Kirk Irwin/Getty Images

PITTSBURGH — How can you play a game without a starting five?

You can’t. Here are the first five items on Illinois’ to-do list heading into Sunday’s second-round matchup against Houston.

1. Jump in with both feet: The Illini were “tentative” in the first round against Chattanooga, coach Brad Underwood said. That’s one word for their hideous start, which left them in a 20-6 hole. We can think of a few worse ones. But it’s a recurring theme after the Illini came out “flat,” as center Kofi Cockburn put it, in a 2021 second-round loss to Loyola.

“You can’t really do that,” Cockburn said. “This is college basketball. Every team needs to come out with that competitive edge. It’s just up to us to start right, with great energy and respect for each other.”

2. Clean the glass: Chattanooga had an unthinkable 16 offensive rebounds against Illinois. Houston is a terrific rebounding team — especially at the offensive end, where the Cougars grab approximately 40% of their three-point misses and score on about half of those second chances. The Illini could lose this game right here.

“The tougher team is going to win,” Cockburn said. “That’s what it’s going to come down to.”

3. Get Trent Frazier going: The super-senior guard put up goose eggs from the field on Friday. Part of his problem: a swollen, infected left eye that has affected his vision since the morning of the Big Ten tournament loss to Indiana. Still, Underwood wants him to keep firing away.

“I want him letting that thing fly,” Underwood said. “We all know we’ve seen the Trent Frazier who can go get 30. We need that this tournament.”

4. Disrupt Jamal Shead: The Cougars’ sophomore point guard is among the national leaders in assists (6.0 per game) and assists-to-turnover ratio (3.13). In other words, he’s really good. But Frazier and Andre Curbelo have the defensive chops to make things difficult for Shead. They’d better get chopping.

5. Ball out: The Illini can’t worry about the unfamiliar bright-orange Wilson balls being used in the tournament, which, according to Curbelo, bounce differently than the Nike and Adidas balls used in the Big Ten. Curbelo had issues handling the ball against Chattanooga. As excuses go, this one absolutely won’t cut it.

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