CHAMPAIGN – It’s no secret. Brad Underwood will tell you himself.
Illinois’ first-year basketball coach is no picnic to play for.
He’s demanding. Harshly so. He’s comes at his players with fangs bared and hands curled into hard fists. He barks like a guard dog with a barbed wire collar. And if you think you can sneak a mistake or a 90 percent piece of effort past him, you’re sadly mistaken.
This guy’s garbage detector has fresh batteries and a hair trigger.
Underwood tolerates just one thing – perfection. And since perfection never comes, he’s usually growling like a honked off Doberman.
This is part basketball coach, part drill sergeant.
Some coaches are holy terrors in practice, then tone it down when the public is watching on game day. Not Brad Underwood. He spits fire and gives his growling voice a workout in a volume so loud many of those sitting in the lower level of the State Farm Center can hear his every word.
It would not be an exaggeration to say that Underwood has become a sideshow of his own this season and that was certainly true Saturday during Illinois’ 62-58 grind-it-out victory over Grand Canyon.
When Trent Frazier was fouled on a 3-point shot, he went to the line for three free throws. In a close game, Illinois may have needed every one. Instead, Frazier missed the first, made the second and missed the third.
Underwood pivoted on his shoe, looked at his assistant coaches and said sarcastically, “Yeah, he’s mentally ready.”
Another time, when there was one of Illinois’ 20 turnovers, Underwood tossed a handful of index cards over the team bench. They fluttered to the ground like snowflakes while he shook his head in disbelief.
When one of his players missed a defensive assignment, he scowled at an assistant and screamed, “Get him out of there!”
So it’s assumed that when players are constantly pushed and prodded to be reach deep for every ounce of their potential, seeing that hard work pay off is a welcome and necessary part of the equation. There needs to be a reward.
There certainly was last Saturday when Illinois played its best half of the year and held off Missouri in the Braggin’ Rights game. As players hoisted that big trophy, there was finally a look of satisfaction that all that hard work was finally paying off.
Saturday’s victory over Grand Canyon was not as emotional and didn’t earn the style points. But the players knew this was a game they would have lost one month ago. They have five losses by a combined total of 24 points and a single critical mistake stands as the difference in three of them.
At least Saturday Illinois was making some of those plays to push the team over the top.
Offensively, this team is still a mystery. Also mysterious is the number of times it comes out without an edge. That can’t continue.
But at least this team is establishing a defensive mentality that makes them hard to play against. Illinois came into Saturday’s game having forced the sixth most turnovers of the 351 teams listed in the national NCAA rankings.
Is it enough? Not yet it isn’t. And as the resumption of Big Ten play begins on Wednesday, the strict taskmaster knows it.
Speaking about slow starts, Underwood said, “There may be a lot shorter leash come Big Ten time. If I could figure it out, I’d figure it out.
“It’s about a commitment to playing for each other, a responsibility to your teammates. I’m frustrated with that. I don’t understand how we can come out flat.”
He said leadership from his players – an on-going issue – is improving but the leaders change from game to game.
When asked if anyone routinely steps up in the huddle, Underwood said, “Leron Black did tonight. Michael Finke does a great job of it.
“At Missouri, it was Trent Frazier and Mark Smith. Tonight it was somebody else. That’s the crap shoot.”
Underwood’s unvarnished style may not be for everyone. But his insistence on doing things the right way – and not letting players settle for something less – is how Tom Izzo gets it done at Michigan State and how Mike Krzyzewski gets it done at Duke.
It’s how all great coaches get it done. Quietly or in a rage, they demand a certain standard and refuse to lower the bar. Eventually, players rise closer and closer to that bar or the coach stops playing them.
If you’ve watched Izzo and Coach K over the years, you know. It’s a process that never ends.