'He's got to get players'

'He's got to get players'

CHAMPAIGN — Roster building is comparable to puzzle solving. Teams without the luxury of multiple plug-and-play five-star talents have to find players who fit together where the whole is superior to the individual pieces.

Pat Chambers has done that at Penn State. Just ask Illinois coach Brad Underwood.

The Nittany Lions have a potential pro at the point in Tony Carr, who causes matchup troubles at 6-foot-5. Shep Garner is the swaggy, irrational confidence driven shooter. Josh Reaves and Lamar Stevens are athletic, two-way wings. Mike Watkins anchors the paint by finishing at the rim at one end and protecting it at the other.

"All those pieces come together," Underwood said after Penn State's 74-52 win Sunday at State Farm Center. "That's an NCAA tournament team. They've got a great opportunity to prove that the rest of the way."

Finding that group took time for Chambers. He was 22-41 in his first two seasons. Then hovered just on the wrong side of .500 the next four at 65-68.

This season — an 18-9 record and a spot in the top half of the Big Ten — is the fruit of Chambers' more recent recruiting efforts. They only truly paid off when he was able to consistently recruit Philadelphia — adding the likes of Carr and Stevens to Garner and Watkins — and give the Nittany Lions the type of athletes that made life difficult for the Illini.

Four consecutive missed NCAA tournaments and a fifth likely this season has Illinois facing a similar uphill climb that Penn State is making. The Nittany Lions have missed six straight NCAA tournaments, but patience in Chambers might pay off this season.

It's a trait he said Underwood and Illinois fans need to share.

"He's got to be patient, and he's got to get players," Chambers said, while touting Illini freshman guard Trent Frazier as a piece already in place. "It's not going to happen overnight. It just doesn't. It's not the way it works anymore with transfers and how recruiting is now. You've just got to be patient and let Brad do this thing. He'll get there for sure."

Underwood's puzzle solving is a work in progress. The pieces just don't quite fit yet as evidenced by 11 losses in the Big Ten and the Illini coaching staff's continued recruiting efforts in the 2018 class.

Wanted? Athletes first. At least one who can provide help on the wing as a shooter and one that can be a true rim protector.

Underwood has spoken multiple times about his process in team building. It's a combination of talent, character and preparation that will yield positive results. He calls talent the biggest part simply to match Illinois' opponents at the high major level. Character — the willingness to fight and compete — is also important and can make up for disparities in talent.

"The process has to win out, and the culture has to win," Underwood said. "Do you have to have good players? Absolutely you've got to have good players because everybody else has them. We're young. We're going to develop.

"This sounds really trite maybe. I'm never worried one game about winning and losing. I don't worry about winning and losing at all because I know if the other stuff is in place and the process is right, more often than not, winning and losing will take care of itself."

Underwood's biggest challenge now remains one he's fought all season. It has little to do with basketball and more to do with the makeup and leadership of the team as the Illini prep for a Wednesday night game at Indiana.

"It's amazing how leadership becomes contagious and one guy just trying to will his team," Underwood said. "(Stevens) did that for (Penn State). (Keita Bates-Diop) does it for Ohio State. You can go right on down the list, and you have to have it.

"That's what I'm fighting every day to try to identify. I'm putting my heart and soul in trying to help lead them and be passionate for them, but I also can't want it more than they do."

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Moonpie wrote on February 13, 2018 at 10:02 am

Some rah-rah for The Latest Coaching Installment from Dr. Richey to try and distract fans away from the putrid record.

BogieRedmonfan wrote on February 13, 2018 at 5:02 pm

Go on over to the State Farm Center, Moonpie, and show them all how to do it.

Good job of reporting. The players they have are mostly young guys who will have to decide to grow up fast if they don't want to be losers.    It is true the team needs some pieces they don't have now, big athletic guys down low.  Will the guys on the team now put in the work to become better shooters and passers?