CHAMPAIGN — Before the first Illinois basketball practice ended on Tuesday, Brad Underwood challenged his young players to shoot one-and-one free throws.
Miss the front end: The whole team runs down and back twice. Miss the back end: They run down and back once.
Make both and there is no running until the next miss.
Underwood summoned players to the line. Swish. Clank. Run.
Finally, after a series of players making one-of-two, and with his back turned and walking towards the hoop, Underwood didn’t have to call upon the final shooter. Senior Aaron Jordan walked to the free throw line.
“That was the best part of that — that I didn’t have to call him out,” Underwood said of Jordan. “He does what a senior should do. He’s not afraid. He got it. He knew I was putting those young guys up there to see how they handled pressure with all you guys standing up there. Finally enough was enough.
“You value that and that’s something else that becomes just as contagious as anything else is that respect that he earns.”
There’s something symbolic in Jordan’s decision to step forward and end practice. As Underwood embarks on his second year as the men’s basketball coach, with just six players returning from last season’s team, there’s a culture in place and a personality about the team.
On Tuesday, Underwood didn’t have to coach effort or passion once. He got to stick to fundamentals of basketball.
“They’re winners,” Underwood said. “Winners do what you have to do to win. It doesn’t always have to be explained, and it doesn’t always have to be demanded — I’m going to demand it anyway. It’s something that’s innate. I didn’t have to get on any of those guys today about playing hard. They just know how to do it because winning is important to them.”
Last year, that wasn’t always the case.
“We fought through our culture last year on a daily basis,” Underwood said.
The passion comes with an infusion of talent, headlined by five-star Chicago Morgan park graduate Ayo Dosunmu. Junior college transfer Andres Feliz brings a maturity to the backcourt and wings Tevian Jones (four stars) and Alan Griffin have length. Big men Giorgi Bezhanishvili and Samba Kane will likely see playing time in the post, while Kent State-transfer Adonis De La Rosa recovers from an ACL injury suffered last season.
Anthony Higgs, another freshman, is in a walking boot on and is recovering from that injury.
The newcomers mix with the veterans of the group — Jordan, Kipper Nichols, Trent Frazier, Da’Monte Williams and walk-ons Tyler Underwood and Drew Cayce.
Translation: There’s young talent to go with players who know Underwood’s system and expectations.
This season is nothing like last year, despite a significant roster turnover, Underwood insists.
“It doesn’t feel anything like that — I promise you that,” Underwood said. “It’s not even close.”
In the midst of the talent, the length and the basketball IQ that Underwood lauds, there’s a distinct personality budding around the team.
Perhaps no personality is as publicly contagious as Bezhanishvili. He’s every bit as talented as he is outgoing. He’s listed a 6-foot-9, 230 pounds, is immensely strong, equally as quick and can shoot with anyone. He also finished second in the team timed mile behind only Frazier.
Bezhanishvili smiles, dances and jokes around. But the personality doesn’t just belong in the forward from Georgia, Rustavi, who came to Champaign from New Jersey.
“I think this is a team that’s live and alive,” Underwood said. “We have a fun group. Ayo had tremendous personality. Tevian is one of the friendliest guys. Giorgi is probably more known for his dance steps right now because he can waltz, salsa and everything else. He’s very talkative. It’s contagious. I love that about him. It’s everybody. It becomes the personality that I want everybody to see and it’s blending in great with our veterans.”
Illinois plays an exhibition against Illinois Wesleyan at 7 p.m., Nov. 2, and opens the season at home against Evansville at 7 p.m., Nov. 8.
“Today was good; it wasn’t great,” Underwood said. “Today was a day that you saw glimpses of what we can do in certain areas, but there’s a lot of work and there’s a lot of patience on my part. The upside to this is really, really good.”
In the latest Riding Shotgun, H&R staff writer Joey Wagner joined former executive sport…
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