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Despite the record, Illinois’ culture is changing

From the outside, it isn’t obvious. Inside, it is.

NCAA Basketball: Illinois at Nebraska Bruce Thorson-USA TODAY Sports

Changing a culture is never easy.

Brad Underwood is tasked with creating a winning environment for Illinois basketball, which is in the midst of missing potentially its fifth-straight NCAA tournament. A disappointing first half of Big Ten play for Illinois has made the first-year head coach’s job more of a struggle.

“It’s a fight everyday,” Underwood said. “It doesn’t happen every single night, and it doesn’t get turned in a day.”

Despite what many outside the program seem to think, someone cannot just snap their fingers and make this transition occur smoothly.

It’s a process.

“I say this, it’s very hard to control whether or not the ball goes in, but we can control the effort and the way we play the game, and that’s culture,” Underwood said.

A constant battle is being waged between complacency and a winning attitude for this Illini team. On some nights it looks like Illinois is perfectly content with just showing up to the game and less interested in playing, like Illinois’ 25-point loss at the hands of a 10-11 Wisconsin team on Jan. 19.

A seemingly different team showed up to play No. 6 Michigan State on Jan. 22. Despite being outmatched athletically by the Spartans, the Illini played with the intentions of an upset, staying competitive with a Final Four contender.

“I was really upset after the Wisconsin game. That’s not anything I want Illinois basketball to be about,” Underwood said. “You play (a Michigan State team) that can out-manage you, and yet, we fought.

“Some nights we’re just better, and that was the case (against Michigan State), but I liked the culture piece we put in place.”

Underwood is working toward building a winning attitude in the locker room. The head coach went 109-27 in his first four seasons as a Division I head coach at Stephen F. Austin and Oklahoma State, so he has come to expect his team to compete at a high level every night.

But this Illinois team is a different story. The recent era of losing and disappointment has taken a toll on the program, and as winning became more scarce, the morale was beaten down to a pulp.

Several recruiting misses and lack of player accountability for Illinois led to a change in culture spiraling in a downward trajectory.

Now Underwood is looking to revive these necessities.

“It’s about who we want to be and how we want to do things,” Underwood said. “Then it’s the expectation level we have for players on and off the court and the effort in which we are going to play.”

The effort has been inconsistent for the Illini this season, especially with their starts to games.

In Illinois’ home game against Maryland in December, the Illini allowed themselves to face a double-digit deficit just minutes into the game. A January start at Minnesota was the same.

Slow and costly starts prompted Underwood to finally voice his frustrations, saying that he is used to players bouncing off walls, kicking doors down and coming into the game expecting to win.

If there was a game for the Illini to continue this trend, it would be against an overpowered Spartans team, but Illinois led Michigan State by one point 12 minutes into the first half.

“It was really good,” Underwood said. “For me, it’s unacceptable not to do that. We’re getting better at (starts), guys are becoming conscious of that and understanding.”

Illinois held a players-only meeting ahead of the Michigan State game.

“About time,” Underwood said.

The meeting — called by some of the team’s upperclassman — allowed the players to hash some things out and express themselves fully to their teammates.

“Everyone just had to say what they had to say,” freshman guard Trent Frazier said. “A lot of guys just into themselves and not worried about the team, so we talked about coming together as a family, coming together and playing for each other... That meeting was very successful from what I saw.”

The team may be starting to mesh into one singular unit, but the Illini fell to 0-8 in conference play after losing to Michigan State by 13.

Junior forward Michael Finke is not discouraged by his team’s lack of success this season.

“We really got to pride ourselves on working hard and at the end of the day we want to pride ourselves in winning games,” Finke said. “Right now we’re not doing that obviously, but we have to keep pushing forward, trust the process, trust the system... We’re right there, man.”

But after picking up its first Big Ten victory over Indiana on Jan. 24, a season full of letdowns was briefly forgotten as Illinois players and coaches danced and celebrated in the locker room postgame.

The fact that they managed to pull out a brutal and much-needed win was all the gratification they needed for that moment.

“We’re becoming a true team,” Frazier said after the 73-71 victory. “We’re showing our identity and what coach Underwood was talking about.

“We’re finally building that culture.”

Underwood also seemed very relieved to get over this hump.

“I’m extremely happy for those guys in the locker room. They’ve persevered through some very, very ‘interesting’ times. It’s a part of the process. The first one had to be like that — it had to be hard.”

From the outside looking in, Illinois is an average-at-best team and appears to be underachieving in Underwood’s first year as head coach.

But take a deeper look and you see a very young and inexperienced team trying to pave the way for itself in the Big Ten, while having the weight of a previous losing culture pushing down on them.

A new era for Illinois Basketball is on the horizon, and Underwood and his team look to be on the rise.