CHAMPAIGN — Anticipation for a new-look Illini basketball season was building and building until the balloon was punctured in last week’s exhibition loss at Eastern Illinois.
All of a sudden, reality hit. There may be a few bumps in the road as new coach Brad Underwood tries to engineer the transformation of a program that has been trending in the wrong direction for several years.
That said, the loss to Eastern was an exhibition game and won’t matter when the final math is done on this season. What matters is what happens starting on Friday night when the Illini get going for real by hosting a game against Southern University.
Underwood was hired in March to replace John Groce. And in the 35 weeks since, he has shaped a roster around five veterans he inherited, five freshmen and one transfer. He’ll begin the season with two less than the 13 scholarship players the NCAA allows, which automatically makes his roster a bit light.
Undaunted, Underwood believes he has enough talent to position the Illini for a chance at ending its four-season NCAA Tournament drought. Less certain is whether he has enough leadership to make that happen.
With that in mind, here are five questions that must be confronted by Underwood’s first University of Illinois basketball team:
Q: What about that leadership? Who steps forward as the coach’s voice on the court?
A: It’s a pressing issue and one that will be answered as the season plays out. Underwood needs the answer to emerge sooner rather than later.
“Getting young guys to communicate and open their mouths is vital to the success of this team,” he said. “We’re getting there. I’ve been real pleased with Michael Finke in that area. Te’Jon Lucas has done some of that. Mark Alstork is sliding into some of that and Mark Smith, too.”
Smith, the freshman from Edwardsville, is a player Underwood has called a "natural leader.” But his skills as a player are so valuable, Underwood has tried not to ask too much of him too early. The hope is that gradually Smith will evolve into a player who brings a vocal toughness to the lineup and who can help prevent the kind of collapse that Illinois experienced at Eastern Illinois.
Q: Everyone talks about Underwood’s “system” and “style.” Assuming it all doesn’t magically appear at once, how long will it take to be a recognizable part of this team and how might this season play out?
A: Underwood has said to expect the transformation to play out in a month-by-month manner.
“We’ll be better in December than we were in November,” he said. “We’ll be better in January than we were in December.”
His experience is that his teams discover breakthroughs along the way and those become easier to duplicate. He’s hoping, however, that the habits players build in practice allow them to have early success, especially since the Big Ten has moved two conference games up to early December (at Northwestern on Dec. 1, at home against Maryland on Dec. 3).
“I like the way they’re doing the schedule,” he said. “But we need to be ready to play those teams earlier than we have in the past.”
Q: Of the freshmen, who shows the most potential? Who might be the biggest surprise?
A: Mark Smith arrived with the Mr. Basketball title and therefore the biggest upside. He’s physically more advanced than the others, looking more like a 22-year-old than an 18-year-old.
“He’s just so strong,” Underwood said.
Both of the freshman big men — Gregory Eboigbodin and Matic Vesel — will need strength and time to develop.
But guards Da’Monte Williams and Trent Frazier could surprise during their freshmen seasons. Williams has a chance to have an immediate impact defensively while Frazier could have some games when his scoring ability shows through.
“Da’Monte has a chance to be an elite defender,” Underwood said. “Some of the things he does remind me of his father (former Illini All-American Frank Williams). The game seems to come easy to him.”
Q: What game on the schedule stands out as special?
A: It’s always the Braggin’ Rights game and this year more than normal.
Interest in the Illinois-Missouri pre-Christmas war had slumped to the point that 10,000 empty seats made last December’s matchup seem lackluster. That’s when you knew both programs were going to have to make major changes.
Both did. Missouri fired Kim Anderson and brought in Cuonzo Martin, who struck recruiting gold when he landed gifted big man Michael Porter.
Illinois countered with Underwood, who is the third-winningest coach in NCAA history after four years on the job (Brad Stevens is No. 1 at Butler, Shaka Smart No. 2 at Virginia Commonwealth).
Missouri looks to have the upper hand this year, but at least the high-energy crackle that has made this rivalry special appears back in working order.
Mark your calendar: It’s Dec. 23 at the Scottrade Center in St. Louis,.
Q: Can this Illini team win enough games to reach the NCAA Tournament?
A: That’s the goal. And how quickly Underwood can find his on-court leaders, install his system and bring the juice back to Illini basketball will answer the question.
It won’t be easy without a more complete roster. And it will be impossible if Illinois has any serious injuries.
Also, the Big Ten has enough good teams to make winning difficult, starting with the most talented Michigan State squad Tom Izzo has ever had.
But Underwood has not missed the NCAA Tournament in four seasons as a head coach and his teams have always improved as the season moves along. He has a reputation for having his teams peaking in late February and March.
The question might not be how they’re playing then. It might be whether they won enough games early to build a complete NCAA Tournament resume.