It’s been a long and ugly downward spiral for Illini basketball fans since Dee Brown graduated in 2006. One could easily say the program hasn’t been nationally relevant since 2006. That’s a precipitous drop off, a long and deep trough of poor results, and a downright horrible fate for fans of program that has traditionally been in the Top 15 nationally. This descending vortex has resulted in a fanbase that is best described as angry and impatient. The current staff has not even been there barely 2 years (head coach Brad Underwood was hired on March 18, 2017) and they are taking heat for having to completely rebuild the program due to the combined failures of Bruce Weber and John Groce’s leadership of the program.
The Illini basketball program is a challenging place to coach despite the proximity to one of the nation’s basketball hotbeds, Chicago. Expectations are high for Illini basketball coaches when it comes to recruiting, but the existing obstacles are not acknowledged by most of the fanbase .
In Chicago, you have the Bluebloods of college basketball (schools like Duke, North Carolina, Kansas, and Kentucky) parachuting in to recruit the cream of the crop and take them out of Chicago to the bright lights of the perennial NCAA title contenders. These schools don’t have to deal with the expectations that Illinois needs to adhere to: being the first school to offer local talent, having staff members at nearly each and every game played during the high school season, and not showing interest in other players at the same position. The Bluebloods can come in late, show their post season resumes, possibly apply recruiting re$ource$ that the NCAA turns a blind eye to, and essentially receive a “free pass” on obligations required of the Illini basketball program. Seeing players like Jabari Parker, Jalil Okafor, and Cliff Alexander (just to name a few recent examples) go to the Bluebloods of college basketball illustrates the challenges that Chicago presents. Despite these unique obstacles, the expectations for the program are very high based upon the overall talent available in Chicago, regardless of the probability of the program to attract such players to Champaign-Urbana. Underwood won over Ayo Dosunmo a 5-star Chicago recruit last year. Despite that victory, it takes time to prove to Chicago AAU and high school basketball coaches that Illinois is a good place to send their stars.
We’re now at the point where Brad Underwood is coming off of the worst season in recent Illini history if one were to look at losses alone - 21. This represents the most losses in any season ever for Illini basketball. Fans are frustrated, but there are reasons for optimism. The success on the court of his first full year’s recruiting class (Ayo Dosunmu, Giorgi Bezhanishvili, Alan Griffin, and Tevian Jones) makes the outlook much stronger for future Illini seasons. The program is clearly at a crossroads. In my mind there are two things that need to be ironed out in the off season that will ultimately determine Brad Underwood’s success or failure at the University of Illinois.
Strategically – Recruiting Success
The Illini have missed on several targets that were realistic targets that they could win – EJ Liddell, Oscar Tshiebwe, Drew Timme, and Terrence Shanon to name a few. Will Underwood be able to diagnose why the Illini did not land a prime target in the fall?
From the outside looking in, it appears the Illini are getting high interest levels from kids when the assistant coaches are up against other assistant coaches. It also looks like when the head coaches get involved we lose ground. Is this because Underwood doesn't get involved early enough? Is it because Underwood doesn't go "all in" compared to his fellow head coaches? Is it because Underwood isn't very good at recruiting? Admittedly, appearances can be misleading, but we have lots of interest that seems to wane when it's time to close for the signature on the Letter of Intent (LOI). When failure occurs at this stage, that's on the head coach. What does Underwood do differently or better this fall? What actions can he take to make sure that in the Fall of 2019, the Illini get commitments from 2020 graduates? This opens up next spring to build relationships with the 2021 players - in order to get signings the following November. In order to stop playing catch up each and every fall, the Illini need to be able to be forward looking in their spring recruiting efforts.
In order to truly excel, the Illini have to get to the point where they are only looking to sign one (maybe two) recruit(s) in the Spring. Scholarship(s) can then be used on an impact player who fits one of these situations:
committed to a team where the coach has left the school for a better head coaching position
committed to a coach who has been terminated
has “blown up” with a dynamic senior season
is a 5th year transfer at a position of need
is an unexpected transfer (have to cover all the bases)
The Illini program cannot survive over the long term scrambling in April to fill up the team. While this seems like a nitpick, in the spring other teams are laying the foundation for November early signings. For long term success, the Illini staff needs to be able to focus on this as well.
Brad Underwood came to the University of Illinois with a short but impressive resume of success as a head coach. The backbone of his success is his unique offense and intensive pressure defense. There are many examples of this type of offense working, but the defense is where the analysis needs to be done. The question must be answered - will this defense work at the B1G level?
At the mid-major level, teams don't have the number of very good ball handlers or shooters that you find on a typical B1G-type team. At the mid-major level, Underwood's teams ran into teams that couldn't "fight back" as well as what he's competing against today in the B1G. Its easy to pressure teams with only one good ball handler or one good shooter. In the B1G, many teams have a number of both. Based on points allowed, the number of fouls called, and the number of free throws earned by the other B1G teams, does his base defense need to be tweaked or even scrapped? It may be that this defense is truly dependent upon an uber-talented roster to make it work. If so, it would explain how Underwood’s mentor Frank Martin can go from so-so to the Final Four and back to so-so in such a short time. If a high level of physical talent is required, the Illini staff may need to master improved Strategic Recruiting Success in short order if they decide to stick with his defense.
There may be a middle ground to fix the defense. A way that doesn't expect a magical elevation to higher recruiting levels and doesn't require scrapping the whole defense. Coach could adjust the defense game-by-game to match up to the strengths and weaknesses of the opposing team. Coaches could dial down the pressure or select only certain locations on the court to apply it. Certainly, Wisconsin plays the same defense against every team, but it’s a lower risk defense that keys on having backside rotations available to help at every turn. The Illini depend on pressure and aggressive passing lane defense to get turnovers. If it doesn’t work, layups and fouls are the result. The defensive philosophy needs to be evaluated within the context of the B1G talent and the existing Illini roster.
These two areas are opportunities for improvement faced by all coaches at one time or another. As head coach, Brad Underwood needs to diagnose the gaps, find solutions to close the gaps and then effectively implement the solutions. Next season is an excellent opportunity to move the program back to where Illini fans believe it belongs. To do this, he needs rational thought and he has to be able to walk away from any personal pride in the way he’s done things in the past. One tendency shared by many great coaches is to trust their past behaviors. Why not? These behaviors and strategies have produced success in the past. Most great coaches don’t enjoy changing to new and unproven strategies, or having to abandon “their” system. The truly great coaches do what is necessary to win. They don't care where the idea originates from.
Underwood has moved from mid-major, to Big 12, and now to the B1G. It is now mission critical to recognize that past behaviors may not be good enough to succeed in the B1G. Can he identify what needs to be kept and what needs to be left behind? The stakes are big for both Underwood’s legacy and the Illini basketball program’s health. Dan Monson couldn’t figure it out when he moved from Gonzaga to Minnesota. Todd Lickliter couldn’t do it when jumping from Butler to Iowa. We all know that Bill Self figured it out when he jumped from Tulsa to Illinois and again when he went from Illinois to Kansas.
Will Brad Underwood figure it out? As an Illini fan, I sure hope so…