Underwood waiting on next leader to emerge

Underwood waiting on next leader to emerge

CHAMPAIGN — Brad Underwood inherited a 27-win team at Stephen F. Austin when he got his first opportunity as a head coach ahead of the 2013-14 season. The Lumberjacks might have graduated some key players from that squad, but Underwood had two players — Jacob Parker and Thomas Walkup — that became the building blocks of three straight NCAA tournament teams.

The situation at Oklahoma State in 2016-17 was different. At least in some ways. The Cowboys went 12-20 the season before Underwood took control of the program, but he had upperclassmen with NCAA tournament experience, a leader in Phil Forte and a lightning quick point guard in Jawun Evans.

Neither situation compared to what Underwood found in his first season at Illinois.

Three starters had graduated, including the program's No. 3 all-time leading scorer in Malcolm Hill, who literally did it all for the Illini in his final two seasons. Every returning player would be thrust into a new role, and a season-long search for a leader ended in a 14-18 record and a fifth straight NCAA tournament miss for Illinois.

"That was one of the things we've fought for all year was establishing leadership on our team," Underwood said.

"If we failed in an area, that was it. We never had a leader. We never had that guy or those guys. When you don't have leadership, you have 14-18 seasons and that was something that was evident."

Underwood's first Stephen F. Austin team had what he called "incredible" leadership. His only Oklahoma State team relied on Forte and Evans but was a tight group.

"There was something bigger in that group and leadership in Phil Forte and Jawun," Underwood said. "Those guys had a big picture. They knew they could be an Elite Eight team. Even when we struggled at one point, man, that leadership was really, really good."

It's why Underwood pushed trying to find a leader throughout the 2017-18 season at Illinois, mentioning it often throughout the season. How it had to come from the players, not from him.

"I don't want to have to force," Underwood said. "It doesn't work. You can't force guys to be a leader."

Seeds of that player-driven leadership are growing in the offseason this spring. Aaron Jordan's work ethic and demeanor creates what Underwood called "tremendous respect" from his teammates. Others are starting to emerge, too, as personalities start to shine.

"We've seen a tremendous jump in Da'Monte Williams," Underwood said of the rising sophomore guard with what seems at first glance a reserved nature. "Da'Monte Williams was not the most vocal person. Now, he is," the Illini coach continued. "Now, he is. Da'Monte is a guy that has really gotten on guys in both positive and negative ways. He's not afraid to be uncomfortable coaching and helping his teammates. I love that."

Underwood said Trent Frazier — an All-Big Ten Freshman Team selection last season — is taking on more leadership responsibility. It's something Frazier said he tried to do in his first year with the Illini but wasn't always sure about how to accomplish it as a freshman.

"We've seen personalities evolve," Underwood said. "I'm excited for June 9 or 10 when everybody gets here to see how that evolves with this group of young guys. We've tried to find that, to be honest, in our recruiting class as well."