Roster Fit

Mar 19, 2017

I wrote this same article for Lovie Smith. We have this new coach, we have this here roster of players... how well will it mesh in the first few years? Does he have a roster where he can win immediately or will it take some time? Let's go through all the returning players + the recruits.

For starters, I don't think we can say that everyone will be back. DJ Williams took that "leave of absence" during the season, which felt a lot like Jereme Richmond's leave of absence back in 2011 (which led to him eventually leaving the program). And players tend to transfer after their sophomore season (so they they can take their sit-out year and then have two years at their next destination), so we probably have to look at Aaron Jordan the same way. If he returns for his junior year, he's sticking it out, but this is usually when players who aren't getting playing time will leave.

I'm hoping both return, of course, as a new system and new outlook could give them a bump towards serious minutes in the rotation (not to mention the five seniors graduating). I think we should probably lay out the full roster here before we break it down.


Jalen Coleman-Lands
Leron Black
Michael Finke
Aaron Jordan
DJ Williams

Te'Jon Lucas
Kipper Nichols

Incoming Freshmen
Trent Frazier (has confirmed on Twitter that he is sticking with Illinois)
Jeremiah Tilmon (have to be honest - he's a question mark at this point)
DaMonte Williams
Javon Pickett

I suppose I should take even one more step back and look at recruiting before we look forward at Underwood + this roster.

Mark Smith from Edwardsville, this year's Charlie Moore/Marcus Lovett/Patrick Beverly senior year out-of-nowhere player, is still yet to make a decision. I'm sure he's priority #1 for Underwood right now. He's said in several interviews that he grew up an Illini fan. If Underwood can close the deal with Smith, the backcourt feels fairly set.

The frontcourt is still a bit frightening. Right now, next season is probably 27 minutes for Leron Black, 27 minutes for Michael Finke, and 26 minutes for Jeremiah Tilmon (and hope none of the three get in foul trouble because there is no one else). Say disaster strikes and Cuonzo Martin lures Jamall Walker to Missouri (which, in turn, lures Jeremiah Tilmon to Missouri). That would mean next year's frontcourt rotation would be 32 minutes from Black, 32 minutes from Finke, and... 16 minutes from walkon Cameron Liss? Maybe you could get Kipper some minutes at the four (we'll look at that in a bit), but really, Liss would probably play a fair bit. There's no other forwards on the entire roster.

Now, this could also be corrected through recruiting. Maybe there's a fifth-year transfer forward out there (or maybe even a juco guy) who could come in and provide backup minutes in the frontcourt. But at this point, getting confirmation from Tilmon is wildly important.

OK, so with that clarified, I'll go ahead and evaluate assuming all players return/stay committed. This will need to be adjusted if they leave, but for now, here's what Underwood has to work with.

+ I watched a few hours worth of videos from the Stephen F. Austin athletic department this morning (I didn't have anything else to do). Several "mic'd up at practice videos", lots of press conferences, etc. The main thing that stuck out was, well, the same thing everyone is talking about: up-tempo offense. So many times he said his "we look for shots in the first seven seconds of the shot clock (before the defense is set up)". He also talked a lot about running "four-out, one-in motion" and how they "don't mind going small" and their emphasis on offensive rebounds.

That's probably a good thing for our frontcourt concerns. I think the strength of the next few rosters will be the backcourt, and when you're a "crash the offensive glass" team you're also a "the guards have to be really great with the 3-on-2 coming back the other way" team. And you need guys who can guard the four on one end but also do some guard-like things on the offensive end (you know, like shoot).

That probably means good things for Kipper. If he can guard the post, he can be one of the two "bigs" rotating out to the perimeter (and then back in when the other guy goes out) for a four-out, one-in offense. He showed this season that he can shoot the three AND he can get some garbage put-backs, so while I think he's a wing, he might be able to play some "4". Might even flourish there.

It's also probably good that Leron and Finke both have range out to the three point line (I know, I still wince a bit when Leron takes a three too). If I understand four-out, one-in correctly, if one post player is in the low block on the left, the other his out at the three point line on the right (and vice versa). So it's probably a better fit for Finke and Black than, say, Mav.

But it's still crazy thin. Finke + Black + maybe some Kipper and that's it besides one walkon. Tilmon has to come and he has to be ready to immediately play 20 minutes per game.

+ In the backcourt, I think Underwood will like what he finds. Te'Jon showed flashes as a freshman, JCL can be the needed pure shooter, and there's a lot of hope for Trent Frazier to come in and contribute right away. Add Mark Smith to that and I think Underwood might have four guards who could be really good by the end of his second season.

And I don't mean to discount Aaron Jordan (or even DaMonte Williams and Javon Pickett). Every time there's a new coach there's always a player who blossoms under the new system. Remember Brian Johnson once Kruger arrived? From "barely contributes" to "starter on a Big Ten Championships team". Who knows, maybe that's Aaron Jordan for Underwood. Maybe this system is built for his strengths.

The place where it gets fuzzy for me: how are the "wings" used in this offense? DJ Williams, Kipper Nichols, even taller, lankier guards like Javon Pickett. If Underwood likes to get out and run, the first name that I think of is DJ Williams (who I think could be a great finisher on the fast break). But again, he might have already decided on a transfer back in January and is preparing to move to his new school as I type this.

If you watched the Michigan/Oklahoma State game on Friday, you saw how Jawun Evans (remember him?) was perfect for this offense. So a lot will depend on advancement from Te'Jon Lucas, immediate readiness from Trent Frazier, and, hopefully, a verbal from Mark Smith. Oh, and a healthy rehab from the torn ACL for DaMonte Williams.

As we talked about last week, Underwood gets a practice season. He'll inherit this roster in the fall and work with the same players all the way up through the 2018/19 NCAA Tournament. He'll have 60+ games to take them from, well, this underperforming 18-14 group to, hopefully, a tournament run. It might be a little ugly at first (it was at Oklahoma State, what with their 12-13 start this season), but once it clicks, I think this is a roster that Underwood can win with.

And then hopefully recruit even better replacements and win even more.


Groundhogday on March 19 @ 09:29 AM CDT

I've been chatting with friends about the roster fit. First of all, the base offense is a five out spread, with the 5 position at the high post and the 4 at the 3-point line. Players take turns either cutting or slipping to the basket. The 2-3 are spread wide on the wings and from what I can tell are fairly interchangeable. Many of the post passes are from the wings. The PG helps to reverse the ball, hits cutters, and runs ball screens with a variety of guys.

In this offense, I could see Finke really thriving at the five spot, dishing, screening, crashing to the rim. The five gets position through motion, not power post ups. Kipper would be the ideal four out high. Black could do a little of both, and Finke could also play out high. We NEED Tilmon, but the returning threesome of Finke, Black and Nichols fit this system pretty well.

The wings are less clear. Frazier would play some wing and PG. Forte (5-11) played a lot on the wing for OSU. Smith is a perfect wing for this offense, being able to make the post pass, shoot from outside, and finish at the rim. I'm not so sanguine on JCL. The wings in this offense need to be able to pass and catch-finish at the rim (or pass back out), and handle/dish the ball on the break. JCL seems awkward when not catching and shooting at the arc. DJW would be a good fit for this system, but I'm not sure a soft-minded player would success under a tough as nails coach. Jordan is a very poor fit with his 1-dimensional game.

Lucas + Frazier give us a nice PG combo for this offense, though of course Frazier is a freshman so will have a learning curve.

Overall, my biggest concerns are depth at the five (we need Tilmon, he'll need time to learn this offense) and fit at the wing.

Bear8287 on March 19 @ 10:49 AM CDT

DJW would be a good fit for this system, but I'm not sure a soft-minded player would success under a tough as nails coach.

We seem to be pretty much aligned on most things basketball and I'll have to admit that this is probably more 'hope' on my part, but I'm really hoping that DJW sticks around. I'm going to extend this out even a bit further and say that sometimes a "tough as nails" coach is *exactly* what I guy like DJW needs.

Hopefully, Underwood could motivate him and that "flips the switch" for DJ and he would start playing up to the potential of all of his raw talent and athleticism.

It does seem like he would be a good fit for the new coach's system.

Groundhogday on March 19 @ 09:31 AM CDT

Really nice description of the Stephen F Austin offense.

Youtube (13 min)

Groundhogday on March 19 @ 09:49 AM CDT

After watching this, I'd say that Black would be best in the 5 high post role. Lots of screening, pop the FT jumper if open, slip to the basket for a layup off the pinch post. Tilmon would also be a 5.

Finke is probably better as the 4, playing high, lots of passing responsibilities, then dive to the basket for a quick post up or layup. Black could also play some 4, as could Nichols.

MoCoMdIllini on March 19 @ 12:34 PM CDT

34 even had a similar haircut to Finke's which made envisioning his role even easier.

Groundhogday on March 19 @ 10:12 AM CDT

Spread offense with examples from Underwood, Altman, Martin.

Another link

Groundhogday on March 19 @ 01:06 PM CDT

Four shooters, one true big who spends most of their time at the FT line setting screens, occasionally rolling to the basket. Most of the ball handling by Evans and Averette, the PG. Little dribble drive by the wings or stretch 4. Sometimes a wing will take the ball at the top and run the pinch post. Not a lot of ball handling other the PG. And even the PG will run the pinch post, drive and dish - not dribble around.

Youtube OSU vs KU, March 2017

Bear8287 on March 19 @ 01:13 PM CDT

Little dribble drive by the wings or stretch 4...

Could bode well for JCL who appears to be much more of a "sniper" who is dangerous when he steps into an open 3, as opposed to making something happen off of the dribble.

Groundhogday on March 19 @ 01:36 PM CDT

The limitation for JCL is that they like to have the 2 have a dribble drive option when running the pinch post with 5 and 1. But Underwood knows how to take advantage of what is available. Forte was primarily a 3-point shooter at the 2, and I could see JCL filling a similar role for us.

Groundhogday on March 19 @ 01:32 PM CDT

Really nice, clear explanation of their offense. After the initial cuts and passes, they like to run a "pinch post" passing the ball to the 5 at the opposite elbow to execute a hand off and roll or step back jumper.

With OSU, they usually ran the pinch post with Evans taking the hand off, but different guys can run it. And different guys can fill the high post role.

Youtube: Underwood diagramming offense

Robert on March 19 @ 01:52 PM CDT

Great, great stuff. I've been watching things like this all day.

And, as a football guy, I'm always surprised at basketball being so "here's what we're going to do, and we're going to make a diagram of it and show you exactly how we're going to do it, and we're going to do it every time so you'll know what's coming... try to stop it."

Whereas football coaches hold a card over their mouth for fear that someone would read their lips and inform the defense of what's coming.

dsboyce on March 19 @ 06:49 PM CDT

These offenses have a base set with several options depending on what the defense is giving you. Put into football terms, it's like having multiple hot read options for a blitz.

track on March 19 @ 05:59 PM CDT

Lol, I have no idea what you basketball savants are talking about when describing the offense. I'm just happy that the Illinois offense can now be described, without a lot of " I have no idea" type shrugs.

Sweetchuck13 on March 20 @ 03:53 AM CDT

That was tremendous, thanks. Really like his quote "our offense is predicated on attacking the rim constantly."

Will be nice to see lots of off-the-ball movement, and hopefully no more ball screens at the top of the key that lead nowhere...followed by a step-back 3 as the shot clock runs out.

dsboyce on March 19 @ 06:46 PM CDT

This video shows an entire game's worth of offensive possessions for one of Underwood's SFA teams. One thing is for sure. Gone are the days of the PG dribbling the ball at the top of the key for 20 seconds while everyone else stands around watching, ultimately resulting in hero ball at the end of the shot clock.

SFA spread offense vs Xavier

DB50 on March 20 @ 02:21 AM CDT

Josh Whitman crushes it again! I love his "I've got this" clandestine attitude, instead of paying a search firm to find his next coach unlike his predecessor. Under Josh Whitman's guidance, We Will Win!

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