Underwood wants Illini playing for the name on the jersey

Underwood wants Illini playing for the name on the jersey

CHAMPAIGN — Brad Underwood admits a phrase he used a time or two last season is cliché. For a rebuilding team counting on a number of young players, the idea that the best thing about freshmen is they become sophomores does ring at least partially true.

"It's also the same thing about first year to second year in a program," Underwood said. "You have veterans who know and understand what is expected. This group has been very, very good at that this summer."

The only player on the Illinois roster with a firm grasp of Underwood's system last spring and summer was his son, Tyler, after the 6-foot-2 guard played for him at both Stephen F. Austin and Oklahoma State. This spring and summer was different. Even with a number of offseason defections, Underwood had seven players on campus that knew his system and knew what he wanted.

"The one thing I try to do is lean on those guys a lot more and maybe jump on those guys a little more than the new guys," Underwood said. "I want (Aaron Jordan) to lead. He knows. I want Tyler to lead because he knows and not let an opportunity to help Ayo (Dosunmu) or to help Alan (Griffin) or to help Tev (Jones) — whoever it is — understand what we're doing. It's all for the good of the team. When we get that bond and that commitment and that unit where we're all together, then we'll really have something special."

Culture building was just as high a priority for Underwood in his first season as team building. The strides he's seen his team make in the former this offseason have him excited.

"I think I'll hold ultimate judgment until we get everybody here, but I love the direction it's going," Underwood said. "It's been a tremendous breath of fresh air in terms of the youthful exuberance that's been out here every single day — their willingess to listen and willingness to want to learn. They're competing and playing awfully hard, and we're not having to beg for that."

An emphasis was placed on team building this offseason. The Illini have gone bowling as a team, played kickball at Ubben during one of their final days of summer workouts and the players regularly spend time together outside the gym going to movies or playing video games.

"I think it's very important the guys get to know truly when they say family that we act like that," Underwood said. "I wasn't comfortable with that last year. It was very evident. This year we've made it a big point to have a locker room that is pulling for each other and playing for the name on the front of our jerseys."

That team atmosphere has contributed to the growth on the court. Players that are comfortable with each other are more comfortable helping each other learn. Underwood's had several moments this summer where he intended to point out an area that needed fixing only to have a player beat him to the punch.

"Since I know what I'm doing now I can be more vocal out to the younger guys just telling them the right spots to be on the court and where to be when we're running our sets," sophomore guard Trent Frazier said. "Each (veteran) can take a (newcomer) and go through it and teach them. They ask questions, and we can show them what to do and help them translate everything on the court.

"High school and college are different. You just can't go out there and just play. Everything has to be nice and structured. Having a bunch of veteran guys to help these younger guys know the sets (makes it easier)."

It's what Underwood yearns for. He sees more success coming from the players helping lead and teach in workouts in practice and wants that aspect to carry over into the season.

"I don't have to lead everything," Underwood said. "(Drew Cayce) and Tyler know this thing inside and out. They're bringing plays into my office all the time saying, 'Hey, we can look at this or look at that. It will fit.' Those are two future coaches who think it and understand it.

"It's nice to have it on the court while the game's going on. A guy like Da'Monte (Williams) or a guy like AJ know when to cut and know what to look for, and they can communicate that. It's not always me having to do that."

Scott Richey covers college basketball for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at 217-351-5605, by email at srichey@news-gazette.com and on Twitter@srrichey.