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January 26, 2013

Former players break down Illini hoops

Turn on the television to watch some basketball and you'll likely spot a former Illinois basketball player breaking down the action.

Stephen Bardo has broadcasted college games for more than a decade, first as part of the Illini Radio Network and now as an ESPN analyst. Flyin' Illini teammate Kendall Gill has served as the Bulls pregame, halftime and postgame analyst since his retirement from the NBA.

Sean Harrington is in his first year as a Big Ten Network game and studio analyst. Illini great Eddie Johnson also joined the Big Ten Network this season and has served as the color analyst for the last two Illini games.

OrangeandBlueNews.com columnist Jeremy Werner caught up with Bardo, Harrington and Johnson to chat about some of the key issues for the Illini (15-5, 2-4 Big Ten), including leadership, mental toughness and Brandon Paul.

On team's struggles with mental toughness and senior leadership…

Stephen Bardo: "It's unusual because a lot of times when you have upperclassmen, they've had someone before them lead the way. There was an unusual string of classes that have come through Illinois the last six to eight years where the seniors, Demetri McCamey and those guys, they didn't really have leadership qualities. They weren't leaders. They kind of went out and kind of played for themselves. When you have that and you have that lack of leadership and you don't teach the younger guys how to lead, how to stop runs, how to win on the road, how to be tough, how to play through adversity, then when they become underclassmen they tend to fall back on what they've seen. So when you look at the Illini group this year, I wasn't surprised to see them struggle because that's what they're accustomed to. They're not accustomed to fighting through difficult times and having to win on the defensive end as opposed to being able to out-shoot people."

Sean Harrington: "Obviously over the last six years, Illinois basketball has gone through changes. It's not that tough team you saw there at the late '90s, early 2000s to mid-2000s when Dee and James graduated. There was a cultural change. You have to learn from your seniors, and this group of seniors hasn't seen winning. You're talking about one NCAA tournament win over the last six years. That just doesn't happen at a program like Illinois. …So these guys don't have that leader that you learn from. It's good at the beginning of the year when things are going well and this team was looking good. But when adversity hits, what do you draw back? What do you fall back on? Unfortunately, there isn't that 'We grinded it out' game. There just isn't that (game) that these guys can grasp onto. That's what John Groce is trying to do. He's trying to create that culture. It's not going to happen overnight."

Eddie Johnson: "The bottom line is you're going to battle with 12 to 13 guys a couple times a week. The only way to go into battle and be successful is you've got to get to know them, you got to understand them and you got to be an extension of the coach because he can't criticize all the time. So two or three guys have to step up to be leaders. We always say that should fall on the shoulders of upperclassmen. Well, that's not true. I think it should fall on the shoulders of [Tracy] Abrams. He's a young kid. He's the point guard. You got to be a leader. You got the ball in your hands. You got to stand up and be counted. These are the things that have to be improved on the team, and I'm sure it will.

On trying to find players with more leadership and toughness:

Harrington: "The coach has to make a decision (in recruiting): are we going to go after talent, are we going to go for the best fit or are we going to go after that leader? You can see that. It's very difficult to make somebody a leader. You either have it in you or you don't. You can create a culture where players will follow that lead and they will become better examples for people. But it's very difficult to say, 'You're going to be a leader. We don't care what your personality is.' If it's not in you, it's not in you. Tracy is one of those guys. Was he the most dominant high school player? Probably not. He wasn't the best player in the state, but he really competed and there's an attraction to that as a coach that if I'm going to lose, I'm going to lose with that guy running the show for me because I know he's going to give his effort and he's going to be the right attitude. It's hard to pass on that five-star recruit if you think you can get him, but there's red flags. You can see that as a staff. That's where you have to make the decision is the risk worth it. In some cases, that's happened in recent years. There were some risks that weren't worth it and that's why some of that decline has happened."

Bardo: "It's really a generational thing. You don't see guys really getting in teammates' faces anymore. It's not cool to do that. I think there's been something lost on this generation where they don't like to be embarrassed and they don't like to embarrass each other. It's not necessarily a thing of being embarrassed, but when you have leaders, leaders will demand certain things. They'll demand excellence from their teammates because they're willing to do it themselves. It's tough to be a leader if you're not going to be one of the hardest working guys on the team. At this point, when you get to be a junior and senior, you either have it or you don't. There's not going to be anything magical that puts it over the top. It's not like you can go to Kansas and get some heart, that's not going to happen. You are what you are right now."

Johnson: "That's [a problem] throughout college basketball. The growth of basketball is being affected, and I know it's a necessary evil - they really hate when I get on them - but really the organization of AAU has to be improved because that's what everyone is using to develop players. A few things they're not developing, they're not developing accountability and leadership. They're just not. Until they start to focus on that, what happens is the university gets players that really have a me attitude and not a team attitude. Their focus is on one-and-done and two-and-done because quite frankly if you get to your junior year in college you're probably not considered a first-round pick unless it's late first round. Unfortunately, that's another negative in our system. So leadership is something that has to be improved upon."

On Brandon Paul's recent struggles:

Bardo: "I've always thought that Brandon's had a lot of people in his ear because he was earmarked as a potential NBA player. Unfortunately, I think there's a lot of tugging going on in his mind from people he respects, from his loved ones ad even people on campus, people telling him certain things after a big game like Gonzaga or Ohio State last year. I think he loses focus sometimes on what's important and that's winning. Winning cures all ails. If you win, enough NBA scouts will see you. If you win, good things happen to you as a group and individually. I think Brandon is falling into a situation where there's just too much input from too many sources that kind of got him clouded and not focused on the task at hand."

Harrington: "Brandon's always been a guy that's played aggressive. He plays without a conscience. It's the best and worst thing about an athlete. If he misses a shot, he's not going to be afraid to take the next shot. That's the good and the bad. …You kind of have to live with what he does. You try to get him to take some better shots at times. I wouldn't call him a selfish player, but he does try to do too much. I think it's his conscience. To him, there is no bad shot in the gym. He's got that confidence in himself that any shot I take, I will make."

Johnson: "If you're a great offensive player - and look, I consider myself a pretty good offensive player when I played - but I was potent with the ball 20 feet on in because I could turn and face a guy and one dribble could get me to the rim. I don't know how many people can stop Brandon Paul from getting to the rim. What I'm seeing is a young man that's just relying on shooting threes. You know what? He's not a great three-point shooter. I think sometimes you have to be honest and you have to look at your game. I would say the thing he does the best is his threat in driving. When you're getting to the line and getting to the rim, all of a sudden that confidence from three picks up. All of a sudden, you look like a pretty good three-point shooter. I think he's just at times going backwards. I think he's just taking too many threes. …Obviously the offense leans toward that and I get it, but I think those guys need to be aggressive and get to the line like they did against Nebraska. If they do that, I think they're tough to beat."

Jeremy Werner is the co-host and Illinois reporter for the "Tay and J Show," which airs weekdays 3-6 p.m. on ESPN Radio 93.5, 95.3 in Champaign-Urbana and streams online at www.espncu.com. You can contact him at jeremy@espncu.com or follow him on Twitter @WernerESPNCU

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