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Illinois head coach Brad Underwood calls a play against Longwood.

CLAY JACKSON, HERALD & REVIEW

CHAMPAIGN – Ideally, Brad Underwood would like to have his team concentrating on Saturday night’s Braggin’ Rights showdown with Missouri.

Until Thursday, though, other matters have taken priority.

For one, it’s time for semester exams.

For another, he hasn’t let his team look ahead without first looking back to last Saturday, insisting considerable time be spent cleaning up some of the mistakes made in the 74-69 loss to New Mexico State.

Once those matters are taken care of, Missouri will take center stage.

“This time of year is very challenging for our student-athletes,” Underwood said Thursday. “We take finals very seriously. We’re pretty sensitive to that.”

Mark Alstork, who is in a graduate program, was on schedule to be the last player to wrap up finals on Thursday night.

As for the matter of the New Mexico State game, Underwood said he’s had the team watch the game tape over and over again, spending much of their time together revisiting costly mistakes. And not just at the end of the game, when another famously unsuccessful in-bounds pass went awry and gave New Mexico State a pathway to victory.

“The first half of that game was the poorest half we’ve played all year,” Underwood said. “I filled out four-and-a-half pages of defensive notes with lapses and mistakes. I watched that film five times trying to show them a lot of those things.

“I’ve probably said it 100,000 times this year, but quiet teams lose. When you don’t communicate on the floor, mistakes happen. The way we play, we have to communicate. And the other night, for whatever reason, we didn’t communicate and it led to breakdowns.”

Underwood said the quest to establish dependable on-court leadership continues.

“Leading is hard,” he said. “I watched the Wofford-North Carolina game (Wednesday) night. I’ve known (Wofford coach) Mike Young a long time and they went in with eight or nine freshmen and sophomores and beat the 5th-ranked team in the country on their floor.

“What he said was quite relevant to what I want. He said, ‘We have a bunch of high character kids and all they care about is winning and being the best teammate they can be.’

“That fits us. It’s what I’m preaching. It’s got to be about winning. You can’t feel bad about not making shots. It’s about accountability. I don’t even look at stat sheets. It’s about the way the game is played.”

Underwood said he has one player who is trying hard to be that leader.

Te’Jon Lucas is trying like crazy,” he said. “Yet it can’t be selective. When someone blows a ball screen coverage, you have the right to get on them.

“Mark Smith is going to be that guy. But it has to be all the time, not just when you feel right. Trent Frazier has some of that charisma. But they are still freshmen and they’re still trying to figure out how to write a 15-page paper in finals week and play basketball. It’s the first time they’ve been through it.”

But as the semester ends, and as the Braggin’ Rights game draws near, Underwood has told Trent Frazier, Mark Smith and Da’Monte Williams it’s time to act like upperclassmen in clutch moments.

“We can’t fear that moment,” he said. “Freshmen aren’t freshmen anymore. I told them, ‘You’ve played a semester of basketball. Time to grow up. Today will be our 53rd or 54th practice. You’ve been through enough. You should know by now.’”

Michael Finke, a junior and veteran of two Braggin’ Rights victories, said he hasn’t seen those freshmen hang their heads, despite five losses by a combined total of 24 points.

“Honestly, I think everyone is keeping their heads up,” Finke said. “We know we’re right there. We just have to keep trusting the process.

“I think the freshmen know (Braggin’ Rights) is a big game, but I don’t think they know how big it is. We’ll talk to them about it soon. It’s a huge game for us because we want to get a win against a quality team.”

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Executive Sports Editor

Executive Sports Editor for the Herald & Review

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