Who will step up for the Illini?

Who will step up for the Illini?

CHAMPAIGN — Illinois' 80-67 exhibition loss to Eastern Illinois was a good thing. Just ask first-year Illini coach Brad Underwood.

Underwood got his team in uniform, under the lights and in front of a crowd. It's an atmosphere that can't be re-created in practice or "secret" scrimmages. Invaluable experience, Underwood said, for a team full of freshmen that will be counted on to contribute this season.

That an 11-point first-half lead turned into a 13-point loss to the upset-minded Panthers also put the Illini right where Underwood wants them heading into Friday's 7 p.m. season opener against Southern University at State Farm Center.

"I never forget that I'm a teacher, and these are moments when you've got to regroup," Underwood said. "I love — I get excited — when I find guys at their lowest and guys when they struggle. Let's be real. It's not all balloons and celebrations.

"You have to find out who people really, really are. You've got to know who's in that locker room when it's hard. I'd rather do it now than in January."

It's all part of Underwood's ongoing pursuit of finding who will lead this Illinois team. It won't be him. Any success this season will come only if the Illini players take control of leading the team.

"We need to find that leader," freshman guard Trent Frazier said. "(Underwood) doesn't care if it's a freshman, sophomore or senior. We're really looking for that guy to step up and take control of the team when we're down."

Losing by 13 points to Eastern Illinois? As good a time as any to push for a player takeover when it comes to leadership. Part of that pursuit has seen Underwood try and get a veteran player like Michael Finke out of his comfort zone.

"That's something I've been trying to challenge myself with," the redshirt junior forward said. "I've been trying to talk more. Encouraging is something I think I've always been good at, but the thing that's always been kind of challenging for me is when things are going wrong and you need to get on someone and say it in a different tone. I'm trying to be better with that."

Underwood wants all of his players to be better communicators. Listen to him enough, and the idea that "quiet teams lose" is bound to stick out.

"Getting young guys to communicate and open their mouths is vital to success," Underwood said. "There's no mind reading in basketball. You have to verbalize it. The more we talk, the better we're going to become."

The end result of the charity exhibition against Eastern Illinois wasn't at the top of list of what Underwood was looking for from the game. He was more concerned about tendencies, identity, character and execution.

The last of those was lacking for Illinois against the Panthers. While the game didn't count in the win-loss column, it certainly counted as adversity. Maybe some needed adversity for the young Illini. The experienced Illini, too.

"They've all been the best players on the team," Underwood said about his freshmen. "They've all been told how great they are since goodness knows when. Now, when they face adversity on the basketball court is when you truly find out who they are.

"(Friday night was) a really good thing because we're finding out who they are. We're finding out who some of the veterans are."

The Illinois players know they didn't have the energy and effort necessary against Eastern Illinois. They know they were outworked.

"A lot of the little things that we needed to put emphasis on I don't think we did the whole game," redshirt sophomore Kipper Nichols said. "We've got to sustain that for 40 minutes. Attention to detail is big, and sustaining effort is non-negotiable."