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Underwood On Illini’s Leadership Issues: 'I’ll be that guy'

Illinois head coach Brad Underwood says there’s “no doubt” where the leadership has to come from on this Illini team. Him.

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- Brad Underwood says he knows clearly and plainly where the leadership of this Illini basketball has to come from.

Him. And right now, him only.

So get ready for Underwood to wear the metaphorical black hat with his players for the next three months as Illinois (8-4, 1-1 in Big Ten) tries to recover from another disappointing start to non-conference play. Because judging from the head coach’s comments, the Illini players may not have a very pleasant head coach running practice sessions and games over the next few months.

“We can’t have the every 3-4 games of lapses like we had against Miami, like we had against Missouri where it’s not competing, not playing to a level of consistency that you have to have in order to be good,” Underwood said.

Following a 63-56 loss a week ago to Missouri in the Braggin’ Rights Game, Underwood challenged his team’s “fight” and desire to represent the Illinois jersey immediately after the game. Following the team’s third practice since arriving back on campus after Christmas break, Underwood said Saturday he recognizes this constant challenging by him to his players will need to continue for the foreseeable future.

“No doubt,” Underwood said. “I know where that has to come from now.”

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With Illinois already 12 games into this 2019-20 season, Underwood had hoped that upperclassmen leaders such as Andres Feliz, Trent Frazier, Da’Monte Williams or Kipper Nichols along with returning stars Ayo Dosunmu or Giorgi Bezhanishvili would take over the locker room for a team with NCAA Tournament aspirations.

“You don’t make leaders. You don’t,” Underwood said. “You got to want to lead others. Sometimes, we have enough guys trying I think there’s a tremendous amount of discipline to be a leader. You have to do it every day. You have to hold yourself accountable and responsible and we’re growing in that area. Sometimes it’s really hard to lead when you’re not playing as well as you think you’re capable of. Or you think you should be playing so you get down or frustrated.”

Underwood’s assessment just a few before flipping the calendar to the new year is that player-led mentality hasn’t happened. And so that “playing with your hair on fire mentality” will clearly have to come from him and his staff.

“You hope there’s a self-engaged locker room that is ready to hold people accountable there and right now that’s not the case,” Underwood said. “I’m okay with that. It makes it sometimes more challenging but that’s okay. I’ve done that before and I’ll do it again. We have leaders in (that locker room) and we just need to continue to grow it and until then, I’ll be that guy.”

One of the players applauded for his effort by his head coach in the loss to Missouri was sophomore guard Alan Griffin. Despite being ejected from the game with two technical fouls shortly before the final horn, Griffin did have eight points and six rebounds in just 18 minutes off the bench. The sophomore, whose father Adrian played in the NBA for nine seasons, and is currently lead assistant coach with the Toronto Raptors, talked about getting that “mindset” back before Illinois takes the floor again tomorrow night against North Carolina A&T (1 p.m., ESPNU) at State Farm Center.

“It’s different for every person as everybody gets going in different ways but once we all find that one link, we’re really good,” Griffin said. “When we’re connected, we’re really good on both ends. We weren’t really connected at all in that (Braggin’ Rights) game.”