CHAMPAIGN – Brad Underwood arrived in Champaign nine months ago believing he was brought there to teach a healthy bunch of young men to win at basketball.
What he’s finding out is that there’s a bacteria living in the locker room, an infection that has been festering there like mold for the better part of 10 years. It’s a nasty big-picture issue that must be remediated before Illinois can ever realize full potential.
Debate if you will the seriousness of the issue, but there’s no debating these points:
Illinois hasn’t won a Big Ten title since 2005. Illinois has been in the NCAA Tournament once in the past six seasons. Illinois has not only lost a number of high-profile big games; they’ve been blown out in them. Fans are no longer shocked when Illinois comes out “flat” and looks depleted of the passion needed to go stride-for-stride with Michigan State, Wisconsin and other recent Big Ten powers.
Put the Illini in a close game and too often they’ll find a way to lose.
It didn’t take Underwood long to feel for himself that something was amiss. Rather quickly after arriving from Oklahoma State he publicly acknowledged that Illinois had “lost our swagger.” Privately, he wondered how that could happen.
Just this past week Underwood was alarmed to see this condition before Illinois’ home game against Austin Peay. Saying the quiet and emotionless locker room felt like a morgue, he wasn’t surprised to watch his team play a dangerously close, mistake-filled 64-57 victory over Austin Peay.
The mojo that once carried the Illini like a magic carpet has been slipping away since Deron Williams, Dee Brown and Luther Head moved on. Obviously Illinois misses their talent. But the program has also missed that type of confident personality.
These were players who could sense a dip in energy and stomp it out before it could take hold. They simply wouldn’t allow Illinois take the floor emotionally unprepared.
Bruce Weber saw it slipping away. So did John Groce. They tried to do something about it. No coach had more energy than Groce, but last season alone his efforts could not prevent a senior-heavy Illini team from losing by 32 to West Virginia, 25 to Maryland, 16 to Indiana, 23 to Purdue, 14 to Wisconsin, 13 to Penn State and 20 to Michigan.
One can almost hear the players saying then what Michael Finke said Wednesday moments after escaping Austin Peay.
“I don’t know if we came out flat…it just didn’t seem like we had much energy,” Finke said.
No wonder the players huddled up and discussed the situation late this week without the coaches present. They’re bewildered that this keeps happening and are tired of it. They’re desperately searching for a solution.
This is a problem Underwood must solve along with his players. They want to do it, but they need his help. Speaking Friday from Las Vegas, Underwood shared his thoughts and didn’t dismiss the idea that the situation could be improved by simply convincing his players to have more fun in the moments before taking the floor.
“It’s the leadership,” he said. “It’s on me. It’s something I’m going to have to do.
“I send our guys lots of messages throughout the course of a season. I send video clips that I like, I talk about pre-game stuff with our guys.
“When I was at Kansas State with Frank (Martin), our team did a tunnel dance. That became part of our culture, our swagger. It got guys ready to play and it was one player who started it. He became more famous for that than his play.
“I have to help lead that. I have to be more conscious of being tuned in with them being ready to play. I haven’t had to worry about it a great deal, but I am now and I’m learning.
“We’ll get it figured out, no question about it.”
Deron and Dee aren’t coming back. Kenny Battle is long gone.
The next time Underwood sends his team a video clip, he would do well to include one of a former Illini player who didn’t have half of the talent those legends had.
Share a clip of Lucas Johnson.
There was rarely a loss of energy, passion or belief when that rascal went into his whirling dervish act. He could lead the tunnel dance, pick up a quick floor burn and annoy the opposing head coach, all in one swoop.
A tunnel dance won’t fix everything. Skill, size and system still matter and there’s room for improvement there.
But if a team can’t find the passion or summon the energy, the game can be lost before the ref ever throws the ball in the air.
It sounds so simple. Obviously it’s not.