Tonight sees the 2022-23 Illini basketball team return to the court, for the first time since the worst Braggin’ Rights result in the history of that storied game. That is not hyperbole. Illinois just did not mentally or physically show up for that game, one that matters a whole lot to this fan base, and this program historically.
It isn’t just that they lost, it’s that they clearly conveyed a lack of desire, motivation and ambition. Illini basketball coach Brad Underwood said Illinois played the worst defense of any team that he’s ever coached.
“They out-toughed us,” Underwood said in postgame. “They out-fought us. They took our ball.”
Underwood has been very critical of his own team in recent weeks, and this squad has certainly given him plenty of reason to be very critical. They didn’t seem to really care against Mizzou, as they got totally blown out of the water, especially so on the defensive end.
Sequences like the one shown below were frequent in the Braggin’ Rights game:
— Chris Yates (@CPY87) December 23, 2022
Getting drubbed by Penn State, at home no less in front of a sellout crowd, was not much better. There is no excuse for that, especially after just beating the #2 ranked team in the country (Texas).
A team that has started stacking resume wins like the Illini have should never play as poorly as they have in these past three games.
After the shocking upset loss to PSU, Illinois really struggled with Alabama A&M, coming much closer to losing to that low-major opponent than anyone ever thought they would.
After that game, grad transfer Matthew Mayer spoke openly of internal strife and problems.
But honestly, it is his body language here that says so much more than his words.
(And his words even included “I’m not even going to say what I really feel up here,” and you know that whenever someone says something in that vein, the reality behind closed doors is even worse than what is public knowledge!)
Pay close attention to what happens when Mayer talks around the 2:47 mark and the 3:06 mark. You know what they say- most of human communication is non-verbal!
Then you have the Brad Underwood answering a reporter’s question by making a fart noise.
While that gesture could probably be a good summation of this team right now, or at least the lack of player leadership on it (leadership was what Underwood was being asked about in that context), it was still unprofessional for a power five conference coach to do that.
It was not a huge deal, not the end of the world by any means, just a bit of an immature thing to do. Maybe Terrence Shannon isn’t a great leader. Or maybe he is, who knows? We do know that Matthew Mayer is not a great leader.
Doesn’t really seem like Coleman Hawkins (who considered entering the transfer portal this offseason) is a fit, in a leadership role, for this team either. Regarding Hawkins, his situation could be another article all in itself.
For someone considered a legit NBA Draft prospect, his production on the court does not back that up.
He often makes a lot of poor decisions, which drastically hurt this team, over and over again. You’ve probably already seen the interview where he discusses how Trent Frazier taught him how to tune out Underwood’s yelling. In that context, it was supposed to be a good thing.
But when you look at the quotes and the video on just its face, Hawkins is plain out saying that he knows how to not listen to his own coach, when he wants to.
Take that fact for what it is, and do with it what you will.
So he’s lost some of these guys.
Can he get them back? (Only if he can somehow get more eligibility for Trent Frazier, and line up a sweet NIL deal for him to live on).
All joking aside, tonight might not tell us much towards answering that question. Bethune-Cookman is like Alabama A&M, not even a mid-major.
Maybe not even a low-major. Illini basketball, a program ranked by the AP in 2017 as the 11th best all-time nationally, should not struggle with motivational issues.
This Illini basketball team, still ranked #16 in the nation prior to that embarrassment against Mizzou, should beat BCU pretty easily, even if they are not giving a full 100% effort.
But just like Brad Underwood has lost this team, he can get them back too. How?
I don’t know, it’s his job to find that solution, not mine. But sure, this season is still salvageable. They can definitely turn things around.
It does happen with coaches sometimes- we do see them, during press conferences, openly criticize the effort and motivation of their own teams. This isn’t rare.
But that is a self-own every time that happens. Guess whose job it is to fix the ambition problem? The coach himself!
Granted Mayer and Hawkins (and probably a couple more players beyond them that we don’t know about) have been giving Underwood more problems than he should really have to deal with.
However, it is still up to Underwood to figure this all out. The buck stops with him, and it is not too late.
Paul M. Banks is the owner/manager of The Sports Bank. He’s also the author of “Transatlantic Passage: How the English Premier League Redefined Soccer in America,” and “No, I Can’t Get You Free Tickets: Lessons Learned From a Life in the Sports Media Industry.”
He’s written for numerous publications, including the New York Daily News, Sports Illustrated and the Chicago Tribune. He regularly appears on NTD News and WGN News Now. Follow the website on Twitter and Instagram.