Paul Sullivan: Brad Underwood’s dire message about Illinois’ lack of hustle bears repeating — so he keeps repeating it

If Illinois makes another early exit from the NCAA Tournament this month, you can’t say coach Brad Underwood didn’t warn you.

The Illini leader already was in mid-March form Tuesday night at the State Farm Center in Champaign, pointing to a lack of aggression by his players in the final minutes of a 77-71 loss to Purdue.

After clearing his throat during opening remarks to the media, Underwood quickly got to what he felt was the crux of the problem.

“It’s getting guys to understand a possession or two, a rebound, a loose ball,” he said. “That’s what sends you home in March.”

Some Illini fans might differ, arguing that Underwood is what sends them home every March. Or at least that has been the direction in the last three versions of March Madness, in which Illinois lost in the second, second and first rounds.

Something always happens. A successful regular season ends in disappointment. Thoughts immediately pivot to the transfer portal.

The flip side is the Illini have been relevant for a few years now since Underwood’s arrival. The man of a million grimaces put the program back on the map after the ill-fated John Groce era crushed the spirit of the Orange Krush. It’s easy to forget now how bad it got.

This year’s edition, with returning star Terrence Shannon Jr. and fifth-year Southern Illinois transfer Marcus Domask, has enough talent to go far in the tournament, especially considering the parity of the expected field. The Illini hung with Big Ten champion Purdue, which Underwood took as a positive.

“If that’s the best in the country, which I think it is, we’re right there,” he said.

Still, there’s a nagging doubt they can handle crunch time in the biggest games, as evidenced by the loss to Tennessee on Dec. 9, the overtime loss at Northwestern on Jan. 24, the collapse from a 14-point second-half lead in a Feb. 20 loss at Penn State and Tuesday’s missed opportunity at home against the No. 3 Boilermakers.

The lack of hustle plays was what Underwood kept stressing afterward, and he “beat those points up” in the postgame locker room.

“If we don’t understand that we’re really, really good and we can be a Final Four team …” he said. “I believe that. I’m telling you now I believe that, but you’ve got to make those plays. You can put those (quotes) in bold, italics, on every newspaper, on every damn chat line that I never read. I don’t care. Make big plays to stay alive.”

I wasn’t in Champaign to hear Underwood in person, and I’m not really sure what a chat line is or whether it’s run by Sarah the telephone operator from “The Andy Griffith Show.”

But his point made perfect sense. The Illini just need to do more when it matters most.

One reporter made the fatal mistake of asking Underwood whether he would “hammer” home his message at Thursday’s practice, apparently forgetting who he was talking to.

“No, I’m going to forget about it,” Underwood said sarcastically. “Of course I am. Hell, what do you think I get paid to (do)?”

Before the guy could answer, Underwood brought up athletic director Josh Whitman and Underwood’s nice salary.

“Josh pays me a lot of money to keep hammering that (bleep) home,” he continued. “You guys come up with a bad question like that, you’re going to get a crappy answer.

“Of course I’m going to do that. I’m just going to blow that off and we’re going to sail off into the sunset and go home here and …? Yeah, that’s what we do. We talked about it after Penn State. And I don’t mean to be a jerk, but that’s what we do.”

No apologies necessary, Coach. It’s a default setting that apparently can’t be fixed.

Despite the delivery, Underwood’s message was welcome. Purdue outfought the Illini down the stretch to clinch its second straight regular-season conference title, stealing a win in front of a raucous crowd on senior night.

It wasn’t just because 7-foot-4 Zach Edey, who likely will repeat as John Wooden Award winner as the national player of the year, is nearly impossible to defend in the post. Coleman Hawkins did his best and remains the hardest-working Illini player year after year.

The lack of rebounding by the Illini guards was what did them in, Underwood said, specifically mentioning Shannon for grabbing no defensive rebounds.

“Zero,” he said. “Best athlete on the court.”

To be clear, zero is not a number you want associated with your best player. So pointing it out to the media suggested Underwood really wanted Shannon to hear it.

When Shannon and Domask are at the top of their games, the Illini can compete with anyone. They’re 13-6 in conference play and assured of a double bye in the Big Ten Tournament, so they’ll get a little more rest after Sunday’s regular-season finale at Iowa.

But the Illini can’t afford for either Shannon or Domask to have a down night, as Shannon did Tuesday with 11 points on 3-for-13 shooting and two offensive rebounds.

Shannon, who needed a temporary restraining order from a U.S. District Court to play after being suspended following a rape charge in Kansas, is the obvious key to the Illini’s chances of living up to the Final Four hype Underwood just ignited. Underwood said he’s looking for the 6-6 Shannon to rebound more and ignite fast breaks instead of hanging back near midcourt, as he did on one possession late in Tuesday’s loss.

“He and I are going to have a hard talk about that as we go into postseason play,” Underwood said. “That’s where Ayo (Dosunmu) blossomed. Ayo figured out triple-doubles and ‘Let me get defensive rebounds so I can get out and run.’ Off night for Terrence, but we’ll get that (fixed). He’s a very conscientious young man and wants to win more than anybody.”

Underwood’s dire theme continued throughout the postgame address. He even got philosophical for a moment when declaring that “life is winning and losing.”

“And there are winners and losers in life,” he said. “You can’t not make those plays. We’ve got to get them to understand the urgency of the end, the abruptness of the end. If you don’t do it, you go home. ”

Underwood’s message to his players figures to become fodder for newspapers and chat lines, so get off the line, Gomer.

Illini Nation needs to chat.