It was in June, during his first visit to Decatur, that Brad Underwood said something another head basketball coach might have been afraid to put into print.
“This team has lost its swagger,” the newly minted Illini coach said.
He was almost exactly right.
What he should have said is, “This program has lost its swagger.”
It’s a big admission — all true — because fixing it is an enormous job. This isn’t pushing a new group of kids to sweat hard in practice and scale a hill. This is strapping on the oxygen tanks and starting up the icy slopes of the highest mountain. This is way beyond Xs and Os.
The enormity of Underwood’s task was on full display Friday night in Lantz Gym on the Eastern Illinois University campus in Charleston. That’s where the Illini looked fairly sharp in building an 11-point lead, saw it reduced to four by halftime, then appeared powerless to stop a runaway Eastern rush that ran away with the game in the second half.
The Panthers had a sizzling second half, shooting 61 percent overall and 67 percent from 3. The Illini, on the other hand, shot 34.6 percent in the second half and turned the ball over at an alarming rate.
One team got a taste of confidence and took off. The other team — Illinois — has no reservoir of confidence to draw upon and crumbled like chalk once things started going bad.
That’s the crux of the issue facing Underwood. Over a period of 12 years, the swagger that Illinois enjoyed while terrorizing the Big Ten in 2004-05 has gradually melted away.
Oh, sure, teams have risen up and played well on occasion. But in those 12 years, Illinois has slid from national relevance, missed the NCAA Tournament each of the last four years, and its finish in Big Ten play the last six seasons has been 9th, 7th, 8th, 7th, 12th and 9th.
There is not a single player on the current Illini roster who knows what it means to be in Big Ten contention, who knows what it is to dominate at home or knows what it feels like to hear the name "Illinois" called on Selection Sunday.
So when it comes to restoring swagger, Underwood has to do it one victory at a time. And along the way, he’ll have to overcome a series of adversities. On Friday, Illinois got punched in the face by adversity at Charleston.
Underwood has started this process by urging his team to be more vocal on the court and searching for someone willing to be the leader, the take-charge voice who orchestrates calm and confidence and who calls teammates out when that’s needed.
Anyone can be a leader who pats a teammate on the back when something positive has happened. Few are willing to embrace the conflict that comes when a negative must be addressed.
Underwood has pounced on his team over a lack of communication and poor body language, telltale signs of a team that has no mojo.
“Quiet teams lose,” Underwood said this week. “Getting guys to communicate and open their mouths is vital to their success. This is no mind-reading in basketball. You have to verbalize it.
“The more we talk the better we’re going to become. And emotion — you’ll find out that my teams play with energy and emotion. That’s a challenge. That’s my job every day. I go home tired every single day because I try to bring it as a coach.”
In a perfect world, Underwood’s leaders would be one of his few upperclassmen. But that role doesn’t come naturally for Michael Finke and won’t ever come for Leron Black. Sophomore point guard Te’Jon Lucas is trying.
More likely is that it will come from one of his freshmen. Most likely it will come from Mark Smith.
Smith played well Friday, but Underwood believes he has already asked too much from Smith too soon, piling his freshman plate to overflowing.
“I’ve backed off,” he recently said. “I need him to worry about becoming a good basketball player who is not afraid to make mistakes.”
So the search for a leader who can elevate team confidence and accelerate the quest to recapture a measure of swagger continues.
“Who’s going to provide it?” Underwood asked rhetorically after the Eastern loss. “You get a packed house, a noisy crowd, a little adversity and we couldn’t run anything. That’s an immature basketball team right now.
“But moments like today is when you find (things) out through adversity. None of the freshmen have dealt with adversity. They’ve all been the best players on their teams and they’ve always been told how great they are. So when they face adversity on the court, you find out who they are.
“We found out tonight. We found out who some of the veterans are.
“This team does not have a guy who has been THE guy on a high major team.”
This team — rather, this program — does not have many of the elements needed to build, cement and seal a level of confidence that shouldn’t shatter when Eastern Illinois goes on an inspiring run, or, as happened last year, when Winthrop decides it wants to win in overtime or when lowly Rutgers wants to steal an important late-season victory on the road.
Communication. Body language. Leadership.
The confidence to stand up to adversity.
It’s swagger. And it’s Brad Underwood’s very difficult job is to find it again.