CHAMPAIGN – Brad Underwood opened the door Wednesday and offered a glimpse of the internal struggle Illini coaches face on a daily basis while trying to coax the team toward consistency and the winning habits that are not yet a part of the Illini basketball culture.
As the Illini prepare to host Wisconsin at 8 p.m. Thursday at the State Farm Center, Underwood beat himself up a little in the process.
Underwood was still replaying Sunday’s 75-67 loss at Ohio State, a game Illinois led by 15 points early before facing a scoring drought of more than 11 minutes while getting drilled on the boards 45-22.
It’s the rebounding deficit that seems to still have a grip on the head coach.
“The one thing I’m really the most disappointed and disgusted about is my personal lack of getting these guys to compete on the glass and how much we have slipped there,” Underwood said.
“That’s not anything I want us to be about. You don’t win on the road doing that. To have just five offensive rebounds, I take offense at that. Leron Black had four rebounds and three were on missed free throws.”
Underwood sounded like a man who is cracking the whip on the team-wide rebounding slippage.
“The rebounding issue is on me,” he said. “That’s my lack of attention to it in practice, staying consistent with it. That’s who we have to be. That‘s what I want our teams to be.”
Underwood pointed out that Illinois is shooting 53.5 percent on 2-point field goals in Big Ten play, second best in the league. “That number would go through the roof if we would offensive rebound and make a few layups,” he said. “At one time we were as high as No. 4 in the country with offensive rebounds. Now we’re not in the top 50.”
Underwood was also asked about Illinois’ difficulty closing out close games. Illinois has led during the second half of nine of its 12 losses and Sunday’s game was tied with just over three minutes to go before Ohio State pulled away.
“It’s a topic of conversation every single day,” he said. “It’s a challenge. We try to shoot free throws in pressure-packed situations with consequences. We try to do it when they are tired. We try to understand about being solid and running good offense. It’s doing your job, just being accountable.
“But there is confidence that comes with that. We have a locker room full of guys who all want to win but at the end of the day, do we expect to? That’s a great question for them. We have a locker room with no one who’s been to the NCAA Tournament. They don’t know how to win.
“But the toughness to do it, that’s on me. And I take that real, real personal.”
Tonight Illinois will try to make amends for its worst performance of the season, a 75-50 loss at Wisconsin on Jan. 19.
“That’s the one game all season we haven’t been good at either end,” Underwood said. “We were lifeless in that game. We had eight missed layups – right at the rim – in the first half.”
Wisconsin, which has also struggled this season, looked outstanding that night, like a team that was finally figuring some things out. But since beating Illinois, the Badgers have lost five straight and have dipped to 10-15 on the season.
Once again, Illinois will have to slow Ethan Happ, Wisconsin’s 6-foot-10 do-everything player who had 16 points and 10 rebounds in Madison.
“They’re an extremely big team that last time literally made a couple of passes and just drove it on us,” Underwood said. “We fouled them, didn’t guard the ball well and those are things we have to do better.
“Ethan is an all-league guy and we have to make his touches more difficult.”