"We've lost our swagger and I'm here to bring it back. We're going to bring it back. There's no question about that."
- Brad Underwood
Late last December, then head coach John Groce took his Illinois basketball team on the road to open the Big Ten season against Maryland. Riding a five game win streak, a few seeds of optimism had been sprinkled about, and there was some hope that maybe a corner had finally been turned on the season.
13 minutes after tip-off the Terps led 27-10 and, well, you know where this story eventually ends. After the game, Robert and I discussed the state of the program's culture in a spirited Back and Forth. My primary takeaway that night was summed up in these words:
"The Illini cut bait at the first sign of adversity, and I trace that to an inherent lack of trust in what they were coached to do. That's indicative of an absent basketball culture...a disconnect to where he has not been able to coach his players to be successful within the system (or recruit the type of players to run the system). Simply put - an inability to align his players with his vision of basketball culture at Illinois."
So exit John Groce and enter Brad Underwood. Underwood's head coaching pedigree is quite impressive. Over four combined seasons at Stephen F. Austin and Oklahoma State, Underwood compiled a winning percentage north of .800 and went to the NCAA Tournament in each of those seasons.
However, as his inaugural season at Illinois officially kicks off tonight, Underwood has some heavy lifting to do if he wants to stretch that consecutive NCAA appearance streak to five. (Especially if last Friday night in Charleston was any indication of the current state of things.)
He inherited a roster without a single player who has played in the NCAA Tournament. The holdovers from the last two seasons have only 13 total Big Ten Conference wins and have lost games by 25 or more points a whopping seven times. The rest of the players expected to make major contributions this season include a Horizon League transfer and several promising yet unproven freshmen.
But most of all, he inherited a team that had completely lost its way. A squad - as he duly noted above - devoid of any semblance of swagger. And swagger lost is not easily reclaimed. First comes culture*. *
To establish a winning culture within a program, a new coach must hardwire the core tenets of his philosophy into his players down to the tiniest detail. His players must fully embrace those tenets, be trusted to adhere to them under the most difficult of circumstances, and be held accountable if they fail to do so. No exceptions. No special dispensation. Once ingrained, though, a foundation is laid that remains firmly in place from season to season even as players come and go. Coach Henson established a culture at Illinois that stood strong for 20 plus years. By contrast, you can't put a catchphrase on a wristband and call it culture. The Illinois program's foundation has crumbled over the past decade, and Underwood's first and most important job is rebuilding it.
So how does all this culture mumbo jumbo manifest itself into something tangible? How will we know the players are buying what Underwood is selling? How can Tyler find a way to sneak in some basketball geek stuff into this post? Glad you asked.
While Coach Henson's culture was rooted in a non-negotiable commitment to defense, Underwood has established his coaching bonafides on offense. As such, if we want to see if his culture is growing roots - than we should probably be paying close attention to a few key components of his offensive philosophy...
Underwood gives his players the freedom to try to score within the first seven seconds of the shot clock. He believes defenses are at their most vulnerable in these first seven seconds and great shots are readily available. The scourge of my basketball aesthetic - the two point jump shot - is now terrorizing the greater Akron area. Gone is the mechanical and plodding ball screen offense of recent history - replaced by a relentless spread offense predicated on player and ball movement and designed to maximize high percentage shots at the rim.
Cut and Post
Two key components of Underwood's offense are "first cutter lay-ups" and "second cutter post-ups". Not to get too jargon-y here, but after the first pass to the wing, Underwood demands hard cuts to the rim from players at the top of the floor (whose defenders often have their back to the basket) to create lay-up opportunities off of passes from the wings. If that first cut isn't available, he'll have the second cutter through post-up - even if that cutter is a guard. Underwood has no qualms about putting the smallest guy on the court in the post or at the elbow in the traditional "pinch post" spot. Watching videos of his SFA teams run this stuff is as close to basketball porn as one can get.
Three's A Charm
Underwood calls the first seven seconds of the shot clock the "players time", while he refers to the balance of the shot clock as "his time". The concept is pretty simple - the more times you force the defense to move, the more likely a breakdown will occur. How do you get the defense to move? Ball reversal. And reversal. And reversal. (Yet another concept seemingly foreign to our previous regime). Per Underwood's numbers, if the ball is reversed at least three times during a possession, scoring efficiency doubles.
Underwood wants 10-15 more shots than his opponent every night. How do you make that happen? You steal those opportunities. You turn a team over on defense and you own the offensive glass. His goal is to rebound 40% of all missed shots on the offensive end - so everyone crashes.
In the season before Underwood arrived in Stillwater, Oklahoma State was 302nd in the country in scoring, 230th in offensive efficiency, and 202nd in offensive rebounding percentage. In Underwood's one year there, they improved to 4th, 5th, and 9th in those same categories. That's establishing a culture.
Culture first. Then swagger. Then the winning. For now, I'm willing to survive on those first two alone, as watching this team evolve figures to make for a fascinating season. But then the winning please. Let's go.