Underwood, Beilein share similar path, but journeys differ

Underwood, Beilein share similar path, but journeys differ

CHAMPAIGN — John Beilein's first season at Michigan was a struggle. A coach that had done pretty much nothing but win during stops at West Virginia and Richmond, plus his wins at non-Division I jobs before that, did about anything but win that year with the Wolverines.

Sound familiar?

Brad Underwood put together a 109-27 record in his four seasons combined at Stephen F. Austin and Oklahoma State. His struggles trying to build a program at Illinois, though, have extended into year two with a decided step backward at 4-12 overall and 0-5 in the Big Ten after Thursday night's 79-69 loss to the No. 2 Wolverines.

"This Illinois team is really going to be good," Beilein said. "We were successful in here (Thursday) night. I don't think a lot of teams could be as successful this year. I like the way Illinois is playing right now — a tough, tough team. We knew it was going to be a grind out game, and it was."

Those continued struggles in year two, though, are where Beilein and Underwood's paths diverge.

Michigan was back in the NCAA tournament during Beilein's second season as coach. There have been a few bumps in the road — 15-17 in 2009-10 and 16-16 in 2014-15 — but the longtime coach has a .649 winning percentage and two national championship appearances in his 12 years in Ann Arbor, Mich.

Beilein put together a road map of sorts for the rebuild he put together and what Underwood might need at Illinois. Keep putting the pieces together in building the roster. Hope to avoid injuries that could cripple a young team. Avoid unneeded attrition.

"And just continue to coach them up and build the culture," Beilein said. "Build the culture every single day. Now we're at that point after 12 years where we could still have injuries or we could still just miss on guys, but there's a backbone to it.

"I think that's really important that he's got, 'This is how we're going to play, this how we're going to go to class and this is how we're going to act off the court.' Now you build from it and you hold each other accountable."

Illinois has hit on some of Beilein's keys to a rebuild. Underwood landing five-star prospects in back-to-back classes with current freshman Ayo Dosunmu and 2019 commit Kofi Cockburn is the definition of stacking talent.

Save for Trent Frazier's concussion that cost him the Georgetown game and Adonis De La Rosa's lingering, but temporary, knee pain, the Illini have avoided the injury bug, too.

But unneeded attrition? Depends on how you view Leron Black turning pro, Michael Finke, Te'Jon Lucas and Mark Smith transferring and Matic Vesel leaving the program after Underwood's first season.

Hitting reset on the roster with eight newcomers — including six true freshmen — didn't necessarily help this Illinois team tackle a significantly more difficult nonconference schedule than the one that yielded a 14-18 overall record in 2017-18.

This year's 4-12 start includes a number of "almost" wins. Illinois has been in position in the second half of nearly all those losses to come away with a win. Close, but just not close enough.

"It's one or two possessions," Underwood said. "It's not the last play. It's the charge we didn't take or the rotation we broke down on. It's those things that happen maybe in the first half that are just as important.

"It's the pride of understanding, 'Hey, it's little battles along the way, and you have to win every possession and go stop them from doing what they want to do.' Over the course of time, if you win more battles you may win the war, but no one is bigger than the other."

The devil truly is in the details. Details Illinois hasn't been sharp enough on consistently this season, whether it's cutting hard on the offensive end or locking in on defensive rotations.

"Those are little detail fundamental things, and when you don't do those, those become more than minor issues," Underwood said.

Even as the losses have piled up, the Illinois players haven't lost a sense of confidence that they can turn simply being close to win into actual victories this season.

"We've gotten a lot better as a team," sophomore guard Trent Frazier said. "We've grown. We had a chance to beat Indiana, came up short. Northwestern, we had a chance to beat them. It's the little details we have to clean up, like for instance the shot clock violations we're having. We have to get better at that. Just continue to clean up our little details and I think this thing is going to turn around quick and we're going to be rolling."