COLUMN: Illinois Has a Problem But Not A Brad Underwood Problem
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- On two separate occasions, an unprompted Brad Underwood took the blame and apologized for his team’s lack of effort, execution, and preparation following an 81-79 loss to a middle-of-the-road Miami team Monday night.
The Illini’s third-year head coach wants everyone to believe it’s his fault that Trent Frazier regressed back Monday night to being a completely incapable defender. Underwood desperately wants you to believe Ayo Dosunmu’s jump shot being nearly broken is his fault. Underwood needs you to understand that it’s his fault that Giorgi Bezhanishvili hasn’t yet figured out his new role.
A simple suggestion: Don’t listen to him. Don’t accept the apology. Don’t acknowledge his ownership of responsibility. On this occasion, it’s simply not Brad Underwood’s place to do these things. Underwood is not the problem. Monday night was an evening where it would've been okay to point the finger instead of the thumb.
This 2019-20 Illinois squad has a locker room problem as in somebody in that locker room needs to learn the scouting reports, take pride in the defensive end of the floor and start games on time.
“Today we asked all of them how their 4-man likes to guard ball screens and nobody knew the answer,” Underwood said of the Monday morning shoot-a-round. “We’d gone over that for two days. It wasn’t as much physical as it was mental. Maybe that’s on me. We’ve got to correct those things and make sure we’re emphasizing the right things.”
That’s all fine and good but Underwood took three timeouts before the 10-minute mark of the first half because his team seemingly didn’t know they were getting boat-raced off its home floor in front of a national television audience.
“Once the ball is thrown up, to be quite honest, there is very little a coach can do,” Underwood said. “The play card was tried. The timeouts were used up. At some point, the competitive spirit has to kick in.”
I’m not honestly sure what the Fighting Illini coach is supposed to do when he’s trying everything but nobody is playing even average and you’re staring up at the scoreboard and it says: Miami 45, Illinois 18.
When Underwood was at Stephen F. Austin, it would be Thomas Walkup who would make sure everybody was locked in defensively and attention to detail was happening in practices. At Oklahoma State, it was Jawun Evans that got his team out of the 0-6 hole it dug itself in Big 12 Conference play.
“We just got to come in more focused and I’ll step in with my part and get my teammates ready, get myself ready and have ourselves prepared for the next game,” Illini senior guard Andres Feliz said. “We just got to stay together. This is going to be fun to watch because we’re going to be great.”
The fact is Underwood’s best teams are player-driven, player-led and player-run. It’s a mentality, competitiveness, and ownership instilled by the coaching staff to get them prepared for the moment - these types of moments like Monday night. Illinois will open Big Ten Conference play against No. 3 Maryland Saturday. The Terrapins are player-led by Anthony Cowan. Michigan has a first-year coach who had never been a head coach at any level before this season. They’ve risen to No. 5 in the latest Associated Press poll because Jon Teske and Charles Matthews demand a level of excellence and weren’t going to let John Beilein walking out of the door to Cleveland make them start losing.
"We didn’t go as hard as we can," Bezhanishvili said. "You can always go harder and harder and we didn't go as hard as we could. That's on our part. That's the players' part is to come ready every day."
At Illinois, that player-led role should be firmly in the palm of Dosunmu’s hand. The keyword there is should be. Except Dosunmu is the one who was just 2 of 6 in this dreadful first half Monday night and is walking the ball up the floor with the Illini down one with 13 seconds left but with no timeouts.
Illinois is now 0-2 against Power 5 Conference opponents in what was supposed to be a resurgent season for this program. The simple conclusion based on Monday’s repulsive losing result to a very beatable Miami team is if Illinois doesn’t suddenly become a player-led team, this 19-20 team will fall very far short of Feliz’s Monday night proclamation of “being great”.