CHAMPAIGN — There have been some eyebrow-raising moments with this Illini team here of late. And not in the same kind of way when Illinois took down No. 2 Texas less than two weeks ago.
Since then, this recent stretch has been characterized by outward frustration, underwhelming performance and pointed comments to the press. Brad Underwood took his team to task regarding their lack of leadership and effort after a shell-shocking 15-point loss at home to Penn State last weekend.
With a week to think about it and also sweat it off during some demanding practices, there was plenty of intrigue surrounding how the Illini would respond the following Saturday. Safe to say that response wasn’t ideal against Alabama A&M, who came in ranked 334th of 363 D1 teams on KenPom.
Illinois scored just two points during the first nine-plus minutes of the second half. They were on the wrong side of a 16-0 run against one of the worst teams in Division I, which made it a one-point game.
When things went sideways, the body language was bad. The Illini looked dejected. And for a long time, there wasn’t a clear answer on who was going to come to the rescue and provide a needed injection of energy and scoring.
Turns out it was Matthew Mayer, who put together an outstanding second half. The fifth-year transfer from Baylor had 15 points (7-of-8), four rebounds, two blocks and two steals in his 12 minutes of action after halftime. The table was set for his late-game surge to be the lead story — or so we thought — after a 68-47 win.
Sure, it wasn’t going to be all candy canes and sugar plums in the postgame press conference for a team that is capable of far more than what it put on display (again). When Mayer took the mic, he was noticeably frustrated and he said as much flat out.
“I was not happy at all that we were (within) three of a team like that,” he said. “It wasn’t funny to me at all. People were laughing. I just came in and I was pretty upset in the huddle and I let everybody know and I just tried to play as hard as I could.”
The ‘laughing’ comment was peculiar. Moments later, Mayer was asked about what changed defensively during the final 10 minutes, as the Illini only allowed 10 points during that final stretch.
“I think we were just a little bit more motivated, maybe. We had a pretty intense huddle at that 10-minute mark. I think people were just ready to go. I really don’t know,” he tossed in at the end as he glanced away with some visible annoyance.
The growing feeling was that of internal disconnection, which Mayer voiced himself in response to a question about why this team has not sustained consistent effort in the last two games.
“I’m the wrong guy to ask about that, because I really have my own opinions about this that I won’t be sharing up here on this podium,” he said. “I think we have a lot to figure out internally between the players and the coaches. It’s going to be something that we’re going to have to figure out in practice.”
Terrence Shannon Jr. was asked for his take on the matter as a solidified team leader.
“Like Matt said, that’s just something we gotta figure out as a team,” Shannon said. “Once we figure it out internally, then I’ll be ready to talk about it.”
Mayer went on to lay out that he and Underwood haven’t quite been seeing eye to eye.
“We’ve been having really hard practices the last two days and I was voicing how I was upset about that and he was saying how we’re worried about the wrong things being worried about practice and our bodies and stuff,” Mayer said. “He’s seen what we can do and he’s just trying to push us and he knows we’re gonna beat Alabama A&M. I was upset because I was saying ‘that was too much’. He was saying: ‘Do you really think I’m worried about Alabama A&M? I’m trying to push y’all for stuff in the future.’ So, I guess that makes sense to me.”
He later added: “I think where me and Coach Underwood might separate a little bit is I have a lot of stuff wrong with my body that I’m trying to work on and he’s a big ‘everything’s mental’ guy. I think we’re having a miscommunication on that. Yes, I’m still fasting and it’s been helping me a lot and I would credit that to why I’ve been playing better the last three games more than any mentality thing because I’m the same person I was last year.”
Mayer isn’t the only reference point for what appears to be a team that’s in a battle to get on the same page. Coleman Hawkins had some interesting comments and voiced his own frustrations during the pregame media availability on Friday.
On the note of Underwood’s fiery approach after Penn State: “I think we need that. I think he’s been kinda easy on the new guys this year,” Hawkins said.
Underwood has highlighted Hawkins as one of the guys who needs to seize a leadership role.
“It’s tough because it just goes both ways. You get on guys and you yell at them and then all of a sudden, they’re telling you you gotta chill out. I’ve yelled at guys in media timeouts but they always seem to cool me down,” Hawkins said. “I think we need to get on people. I think it’s been a little too timid and kinda too soft, in a way. I think we needed a week like the week we had.”
Hawkins struggled on Saturday with five turnovers, while also being too tentative from a scoring standpoint. He hung his head and seemed to have a hard time shaking it. Underwood, who silently stewed for the majority of the first half for a multitude of reasons, ripped into Hawkins during a timeout before halftime.
The junior big man has been in the program long enough to where that’s not going to catch him by surprise. On Friday, he was asked about how he learned to handle that — while others on the team might be new to it.
“I just know a lot of stuff’s gonna be said. Just tune it out. Trent (Frazier), all those guys were good at just kinda saying: ‘Nah, screw that.’ Moving Coach’s words to the side and just playing through it. That’s kinda what I do,” Hawkins said. “Sometimes, we stop and listen to him talk and I’m just like: ‘Nah, c’mon. Let’s just keep going.’ Once he yells and screams and you’re sitting there listening to it, you’re going to think about it all the time and you just gotta move on from it.”
Make of that what you will. At the very least, it’s an interesting take. And yes, an honest one.
The bottom line
I said going into the year that I thought Underwood had one of the most fascinating tasks on his hands among his coaching peers in college basketball.
He’s gone from manning the winningest program in the Big Ten over the three previous seasons with a bunch of veterans, cohesion, an established culture and two Illini greats in Ayo Dosunmu and Kofi Cockburn to now having a roster full of newcomers and a new playing style, yet the same level of expectations due to the talent he’s assembled.
It would have been shocking if this squad didn’t experience some bumps in the road early. Heck, even Underwood’s most proven and tight-knit teams have hit choppy waters in the first half of the year.
That said, the challenge is different this year. Speed dating in the portal led to fast marriages, and unlike previous seasons, Underwood didn’t go in with an established in-house alpha who could set the tone, set some people straight on their own, while also being fully aligned with the head man after going through priceless battles on the court. Dosunmu and Frazier were those guys.
That’s not to say that their presence eliminated the possibility of inner turmoil. But did they play a big part in getting that more quickly and quietly resolved? I don’t think there’s any question.
What we’re seeing now is a collection of new pieces that are going through real adversity and experiencing the grind of the season together for the first time. And there’s more outwardly visible and audible conflict. Contrary to social media pushback by some Illini players on Saturday night, that’s hard to deny based on what guys have said on record within the last week.
Pointing out conflict doesn’t mean I’m predicting doom for this team. I haven’t considered that. I’ve been around the block enough times to know that overreacting to Underwood’s squads in December is ill-advised. He’s shown time and again that he gets his teams to turn the corner.
But again, this is a different test. There’s a lot more figuring it out on the fly, not only from a basketball perspective but also in terms of chemistry. In now his sixth season at the helm, this has to be the first time that Underwood’s had players publicly question his approach.
Welcome to the transfer age, I guess. His most experienced and proven players in Shannon and Mayer have been with him for six months. Underwood’s going to do things differently than what those guys were used to at their previous stops. Fair to say Mayer and Underwood are both still adjusting to that.
“It’s still him adapting to us and what we do and us still trying to find the right buttons to push,” Underwood said.
The Illini head man was in a state of conflict at the controls throughout Saturday’s game. During back-to-back timeouts in the second half, he slow-played joining the huddle as he sat back in his chair and stared at the floor.
Can we agree that 8-3 with a national ranking and two marquee wins isn’t a bad place to be for a team that’s searching for some answers? Absolutely. Can we read the cues and the quotes well enough to conclude that the vibe’s a little off right now? I don’t see how that’s debatable.