Underwood blasts players for lack of leadership following 15-point loss to Penn State

By Carson Gourdie, Sports Video Editor

‘Complete lack of leadership’: Underwood blasts his team following blowout loss to Penn State

The Illini fell to the Nittany Lions 74-59, dropping to 7-3 and 0-2 in conference play this season. Underwood was vocal about his team’s “lack of leadership and effort” during the game and the lead-up to it.

Following an impressive victory over No. 2 Texas, the Illini fell flat against the Nittany Lions of Penn State in a 74-59 loss. The loss leaves Illini sitting at 0-2 in conference play — its worst start since 2018-2019 — and ends the chances of the Illini jumping into the top five of rankings. 

The Illini didn’t shoot as poorly as other games, but the usually-stout defense got exposed at the three-point line, allowing Penn State to convert 12 of them. Penn State, coming off a tough home loss to Michigan State, is one of the top perimeter teams in the nation and they made the Illini pay for using the “switch-everything” defense. 

Underwood met with reporters after the game, and he blasted his team for a “lack” of leadership and effort shown in today’s performance. 

Gaining too much confidence after Texas victory

“All the credit to Penn State, they deserved to win the game. They punched us in the mouth. They’re the oldest team in the country, and they played like grown men and we played very, very uninspired basketball from the second we landed from Madison Square Garden.

“We have been atrocious and practice may be the two worst days of practice leading up to a game.”

Analysis:

Hearing positive press coverage and being told that you are a Final Four contender understandably can get into the head’s of college kids, and it was likely the case against the Nittany Lions. Penn State is not a powerhouse, and Illinois — entering today’s game as a 10-point favorite — looked checked out from the start and allowed Penn State to dominate from the perimeter. 

Underwood said this performance is more to do with effort, and that they need to act more like “everyday guys,” a phrase utilized during the Trent Frazier tenure. However, even under Dosunmu and Frazier, the Illini playing down to competition was common. 

In 2020-2021, the 24-7 Illini fell to Missouri, NIT-bound Maryland, lost to Loyola-Chicago in the Round of 32 and flirted with losses to bottom-dwellers Penn State and Nebraska. 

Last season, the Illini fell to mediocre teams like Cincinnati by 20 points, got upset by Indiana in the Big Ten tournament and nearly lost to Chattanooga in the Round of 64. 

The talent is there, but teams like Kansas and Houston — who the Illini are trying to emulate — don’t drop 15-point home losses to Penn State. While the Illini can possibly win any game based on talent, it’s hard to believe Underwood can get the team ready for four straight games in March. 

No bright spots on either offense or defense 

“Who guarded? Who scored? I mean, we gave up 47 (points in) the first half, (and) we scored 59 (points) for the game. So you tell me which one was good at either end of the floor.

“I have no earthly idea. I was just trying to find guys who play hard. This doesn’t have anything to do with X’s and O’s. Everything to do with heart. And being tough enough to compete for the jersey that you wear every single day.”

Analysis:

The Illini have received some criticism from its “switch-everything” defensive approach this season, which some analysts say left favorable size matchups for the Penn State guard Jalen Pickett, but Underwood dismisses those concerns as “Pickett scored on Coleman Hawkins last year” and considers him a top talent in the conference. 

Underwood, while questions have been raised about in-game adjustments, may have a point about effort being a bigger issue. Underwood said at the post-game conference that he expected the Illini to play flat this week and told the staff that he expected Terrence Shannon Jr. to perform poorly. 

Shannon, after carrying the Illini in wins over UCLA and Syracuse, performed his worst today, finishing with a mere four points. Shannon has the tools to be a potential lottery pick, but the Texas Tech transfer has been checked out in three out of the last four halves. 

Shannon needs to realize that his bread and butter is when he attacks the rim. Even if he doesn’t convert, Shannon has shown a niche to getting to the free throw line — which he did 19 times against Kansas in the secret scrimmage. 

Underwood rips lack of leadership, Shannon 

“I told our staff he was gonna be terrible today. For two days.

“You guys know I don’t usually come in (angry) like this after a loss. But I’m just telling you, our approach to this game right now is immature as 100% lack of leadership. And if I gotta go back to leading again, this team’s in trouble. Somebody on this team’s got to step up.”

“The worst week of the year (finals week) from the practice standpoint. We will try to get guys in the gym a little bit … So you know, it’s a hard week, but this is going to be more about soul searching and meetings.”

Analysis

The team appeared to get along and showcase strength and chemistry on the defensive end — despite being a collection of freshman and transfer talent. But two problems have probably occurred: the lack of a consistent scorer is still persistent and the defense took a step back because of a lack of preparation. 

Even when the Illini knocked off Syracuse and UCLA, the offense didn’t always stick the landing. Against UCLA, the Illini converted only 25% of its three-point shots if you take out Shannon’s outlier performance. Against Syracuse, the Illini finished shooting only 36%, but dominant rebounding allowed numerous second-chance opportunities for the offense. 

Aside from Shannon’s very quiet and ineffective game, Coleman Hawkins may be the Illini who has struggled the most with inconsistencies and/or role identity. Hawkins has thrived when he sticks to shooting near the rim — evident by his performance against Syracuse. However, Hawkins has settled for too many long-range shots and he seems passive too often. 

With Big Ten play being halted until January, the Illini have chances to rack up some easy wins and boost their rankings. However, with an 0-2 start in the Big Ten conference, defending their crown may be implausible if Purdue keeps winning.  

 

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