The Underwood Offense

Mar 20, 2017

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I'm juiced about this hire. The levels of excitement I currently feel match those I had a year and a half ago when my favored footy team Liverpool hired wunderkind Jurgen Klopp. The parallels are there. Klopp was known for having taken middling sides in Germany and implementing a system that allowed "lesser" talents to maximize their potential. Klopp runs a high energy system with lots of defensive pressure. This allows players with lesser natural talents to succeed by winning the ball high up the pitch in advantageous situations.

Enough about the other football though. This is about Brad Underwood and hoopball. I've made it no secret on this blog that I'm a huge fan of John Beilein. He's an elite offensive coach that plays an exciting brand of basketball. Brad Underwood's system is VERY similar to the one that has made John Beilein's teams offensively elite.

Let's get into the nitty gritty. Brad Underwood runs what can be called a spread motion offense. Its base is a 2-3 high that leverages a ton of cutting and overloads to create easy opportunities to get to the rim. Shots at the rim come from all varieties, cutting, post ups, and dribble drives. The offense is "position-less" in that it plays four guards and a forward/center. Every guard has opportunities to dribble, pass, cut, and post. The post man generally plays out of the elbow, creating two man action with a guard, with plenty of opportunities to slip to the bucket or pop out for three.

The offense looks to initiate in a 2-3 high look. This has two guards up top in the "slots" (imagine them standing on the sides of the lane if it were extended out), two wings at the free throw line extended, and a big at the center of the free throw line or the "nail." With all the players high and above the free throw line, all of the space beneath (read: near the basket) is vacated if the defense isn't sagging off. This creates space for the initial cutting action.

The ball swings to the weak side wing, and the initial passer makes a dive cut for the basket. Because all the offensive players are so high (all at or above the free throw line) there's ample space to cut into. If this pass is open the wing tries to hit it for a lay-up. If the pass isn't there the cutter fills out to the strong side corner.

The second action is the weak side wing running down to the strong side block. This player is attempting to seal his man and allow for a lob over the top. This lob is available since there's no weak side help with the offense is overloading the strong side of the court.

If neither cut is open, the ball reverses to the slot with the five man drifting to the weak side elbow. Given that the two weak side players cleared through there's now acres of space on the opposite side of the court. The guard in the slot plays a two man game with the big at the elbow, either dumping the ball to him and cutting, or receiving a ball screen. If nothing is available the ball recycles to the corner and the wheel motion begins again.

Those dive cuts into empty space on one side and the opportunity to dive the ball into vacated space on the other, means that Underwood's teams consistently pile up high percentage looks at the rim. Underwood believes that if his team gets through 3-4 "cycles" then they should get a good shot every trip.

Underwood has plenty of wrinkles beyond that base action. As someone who's run this offense for years across several programs, he'll have looks to adapt to our unique roster. Speaking of, one of the biggest winners in this transition has to be Michael Finke.

The offense will leverage him at the elbow to hold the ball, pick out cutters, and slip screens to the bucket. We'll also see him get plenty of opportunities to pop out from the free throw line for straight away threes as his man sags off to cover cutters.

Here's an example of some action we'll likely run to get Fink3 going from deep. The action starts as it usually does with a pass to a wing player. Notice again all the space around the basket provided by having players so high.

The two slot players dive towards the basket, causing the center's man to sag to prevent a layup.

As the center's man is attacked by the two cutters (and effectively screened), the center pops out to the three point line to receive the ball from the wing.

And he's open for a shot.

Underwood himself says that the defending center will often sag or play soft given he needs to first and foremost prevent cuts to the bucket going for layups. This allows the center/forward in his offense to turn for easy shots, pop out for long range looks, or simply act as a conduit for the offense.

When defending bigs play tight things really open up for wing players. Here's a wrinkle off of the base action that get a guard an opportunity to shoot or drive.

Things set up with a pass to the five man since the wings are being denied.

The initial passer who would usually make an automatic cut to the basket, starts a dive but flares it out rather than going down the lane.

At the same time the wing player on that same side starts a cut and screens off the slot player's man.

When the original initiator receives the ball again on the wing he'll have an opportunity to shoot a three or drive into the vacuous space created by the high initial look.

These sets create opportunities for players without Iverson like handles to get to the bucket with regularity. The high side overload clears space underneath for straight line drives on defenders closing out. Javon Pickett and DaMonte Williams ought to be ecstatic about this offense.

I could go on and on about the different wrinkles and ways this offense creates the space to get players the ball at the rim. Instead, let's maybe spend some time talking about who should benefit from this offense and who might not.


DaMonte Williams/Javon Pickett/Kipper Nichols/DJ Williams -wing players who do a little of everything benefit a ton from the opportunities this offense creates. Each of these guys will get plenty of opportunities to slash in advantageous situations. Space created by unbalanced formations will allow these guys to drive in straight lines rather than needing to put someone on skates.

Michael Finke - he's going to be a massive part of the offense next year because he's an excellent passer. He'll get a touch at the elbow nearly every possession. The offense will also drag his man to the bucket to cover all of the cutting action, leaving space for him to launch from deep.

Trent Frazier - see: Evans, Jawun.


Te'Jon Lucas - he's a smaller guy and doesn't seem to be a great finisher around the bucket. We know he's a great passer with a tight handle, but there won't be a ton of straight pick and roll opportunities in this offense. If he's going to be successful it will be hitting cutters with pin point passing, and finding chemistry in the two man game with Finke.

Leron Black - I'm not entirely sure how Leron fits into this offense. His best position would be the forward/center spot, but he's not the best passer or shooter. I'm sure Underwood will find the right types of opportunities for him. I prefer him catching on the perimeter to the cover-your-eyes-post-up game he tried on this year. The defense might be a touch too aggressive for him as well.

It's going to be a long wait until games are played again, but I'm ridiculously excited about the offensive system Underwood brings in. The fact that he's successfully implemented this scheme at several stops as both an assistant and head coach has me confident that we'll like what we see. This is going to be fun.


Douglascountyillinifan on March 20, 2017 @ 09:07 AM

Wow. And that's why subscribe! Great analysis, Trevor. How would this offense attack a zone d?

Trevor on March 20, 2017 @ 11:26 AM

I haven't seen many examples of his teams vs zone, but we should expect to see plenty of it as defenses won't want to chase cutters all day.

I don't expect much to change given zone busting concepts like spacing and overloading are baked in.

Groundhogday on March 20, 2017 @ 11:46 AM

From what little I've seen, this offense works as well or better against zones. You have a big man parked at the FT to dish, you have the wings wide to stretch the zone... All those cuts put a ton of pressure on a zone defense.

Groundhogday on March 21, 2017 @ 09:58 AM

Watched part of the 2015 SFA v Utah NCAA game. Utah ran something that was a cross between a match up zone and switching man-to-man that gave SFA fits. The Utes shot blocker stayed in the lane to protect the rim, yet with all the switching they kept good pressure on the ball and shooters.

When they couldn't attack the rim, the SFA offense really struggled.

DB50 on March 20, 2017 @ 09:08 AM

Totally unexpected, genius hire! Nowhere, did you find Brad Underwood's name on any list associated with the men's basketball coaching position at Illinois. In Josh we trust!

Groundhogday on March 20, 2017 @ 09:12 AM

Great analysis. I'm keen to see how Underwood tweaks his system to make best use of avsilsble talent.

A few thoughts: If Blsck embraces the 5 role in this offense he can be successful. He has a nice jumper from the FT. But as you say, passing is critical. And he needs to score at the rim on post ups and rolls.

Finke is perfect for the 5, but that's the one position not shooting much from the arc. I'm guessing Underwood will put in the wrinkles to take advantage of Finke's shooting.

One limitation for Pickett and Damonte- the four guards in this offense have to shoot from the arc.

Groundhogday on March 20, 2017 @ 09:50 AM

Correction on Pickett and Damonte: Looking at the SAF teams, the wings aren't necessarily outside shooters. Their leading scorer in 2016 was a 6'4" wing who shot 0.256 from the arc. A starting 6-5 wing shot 0.301 from three (though he hit 0.400 the year prior). So it seems Underwood can adapt when he doesn't have the desired shooters.

But he sure does like longer wings (6-4 to 6-6) with multiple skills to play far from the basket and finish on cuts or drives. Mark Smith may be more important for this recruiting class than Tilmon.

FosterFanClub on March 20, 2017 @ 11:33 AM

I agree, I think Black is really only playable at the 5, though. I don't think he is enough of a passer or handler to succeed on the wing and we don't want to encourage him taking more threes. Putting him at the 5 utilizes his strengths and also ensures he is closer to the backboard for offensive rebounding opportunities, which Underwood certainly prioritizes in his scheme.

Groundhogday on March 20, 2017 @ 11:52 AM

Ok State played Hammond and McGriff at the 4. If Black could improve his 3-point shooting to match Hammonds 34%, he could at least be a reserve 4. McGriff shot 29% from the arc, which is pretty close to Black's numbers.

FosterFanClub on March 20, 2017 @ 12:00 PM

Sure, but my concerns with Black aren't over his sharpshooting from 3, it's his ability to be a passer and ball handler, as well as make reads, out on the perimeter that concern me. I think Kipper is a MUCH better fit for this reason because I don't really feel those same concerns.

Groundhogday on March 20, 2017 @ 01:26 PM

Agree completely. But Kipper can't play 40 mpg in this system. So Black might well be the guy to spell him at the 4.

FosterFanClub on March 20, 2017 @ 02:01 PM

Definitely don't debate that, I just don't see how we justify more than 10-15 mpg for Black. And I'd much prefer closer to 10, as getting Finke as many minutes as possible in this scheme (switching between 4/5, I think he has the requisite skills to be a 4 in this scheme as well when Tilmon is at 5) is in our best interests, imo.

Groundhogday on March 20, 2017 @ 02:30 PM

Do we still get Tilmon (not a done deal)? How long does it take him to learn the 5 position? If Tilmon comes along rapidly, then yes Black might be in the 10-15 mpg range. If not, then Finke, Black and Nichols are our only bigs (barring a 5th year transfer) and they will all need to play.

Groundhogday on March 20, 2017 @ 09:58 AM

Trevor, I'd like to get your take on Tilmon and JCL.

JCL - could potentially fill the Forte roll as a pure shooter, but not the ideal combo wing, not a driver, terrible at finishing around the basket.

Tilmon - Obviously plays the 5 in this scheme, but I don't know if he has a reliable FT jumper, and can be trusted to handle the passing requirements. South Carolina is playing a true center at the 5 this year and advanced to the sweet 16, but their offense has been ugly at times.

Groundhogday on March 20, 2017 @ 10:54 AM

To partially answer my own question, it seems that while Forte is a pure shooter he also has excellent handles and good strength. So despite a lack of height, he was a threat to drive and finish at the hoop. Underwood will certainly make the best of available talent, but a 6'3" (at best) spot up shooter isn't the best fit for this system.

Trevor on March 20, 2017 @ 11:32 AM

I think we'll use JCL in a lot more V-cuts or flares to get him open on the wing. He'll do less slashing because that obviously isn't his strong suit.

We'll also run him around off staggers as a decoy to allow other players to slip to the bucket.

TIlmon is trickier. I think he would have been better off in a offense with more screening and straight post ups. I think Underwood will look to slip him to the bucket in the 2 man game as well as get him running to the rim for lobs. Something like an opposing 5 overplaying the ball reversal to the elbow and that triggers an automatic run to the rim for Tilmon for a lob.

FosterFanClub on March 20, 2017 @ 11:42 AM

My understanding of Tilmon is his faceup game is fairly solid for a younger player, and if that is true, I think he will be fine, Lot of space to operate, and we already know he can finish going downhill, so that space in the paint out of those 2 man actions seem to be very favorable for him. I don't know how we will integrate his low post game, but I don't think any of this hurts.

One thing I'd think we may see is options off of sets for JCL, for example, that seek to get him 1on1 postups with space. In watching the 13 minute breakdown that's been circulating, one of the more common sets is one run for a wing running off of two screens baseline and receiving the ball on the opposite wing for a shot, and looking for the screeners to slip as well. That set likely also opens opportunities to feed Tilmon close to the hoop for a postup from the wing when he receives the pass after running off those screens. I think the post entries will be creative and rarer than this year, but not non-existent.

Groundhogday on March 20, 2017 @ 11:03 AM

Potential starting 5 by the end of the season IF we keep Tilmon and sign Mark Smith:

Frazier, Smith, ??, Nichols, Finke

?? = Carroll (if he transfers), JCL, Damonte (healthy?), Pickett,...

Sweetchuck13 on March 20, 2017 @ 11:18 AM

Who is Carroll?

And I'd find it hard to believe that JCL and Leron would be displaced in the lineup, even if they're not ideal for Underwood's offense. JCL is definitely our best outside shooter and probably still our best scorer next year, and actually made some important strides on D. Without Leron, I'm not sure who will rebound - maybe Kipper? I think we may see some slight adaptations of the Underwood offense for next year's personnel - I think those two are pretty big pieces to just cast off as "not ideal". And I'm guessing he's much more able to adapt his scheme to personnel than Groce was.

FosterFanClub on March 20, 2017 @ 11:34 AM

Carroll - Jeffrey Carroll, OK St wing (would be a 3). averaged ~17.5/6.6 this year, will be a potential grad transfer target. Shot 44% from 3pt range as well.

FosterFanClub on March 20, 2017 @ 11:38 AM

Also, I have to agree with Groundhogday, at least on Black. I don't think he fits well enough to be a starter over other talented guys. The other thing is that I think he will struggle early to pick this up, as his history playing in unstructured offenses (in HS and Groce's "offense") are well-chronicled. This will be a big change for him.

JCL can fit, but he really needs to learn to be a handler to be truly effective in this scheme. His inconsistency in finishing at the rim doesn't help him here either. I think he will be at a disadvantage compared to Frazier and Smith, even DJW, who are all much better fits in this scheme, unless he can learn to handle the ball.

TJL is the most interesting debate, IMO. His defensive prowess and lateral quickness/smarts are incredibly favorable for his projection in Underwood's defensive scheme. Can he score effectively in this scheme? He can certainly make all the reads, but we will learn a lot in one way or another as to whether he can shoot/finish at a high level.

Groundhogday on March 20, 2017 @ 11:40 AM

Black was losing ground to Nichols and Finke even under Groce. I'm not sure why you think he wouldn't continue to lose ground to those players when they fit the new coach's system so well. Finke and Nichols both rebound almost as well as Black. Nichols might be a better offensive rebounder in this spread system.

As for JCL, he might well start and he is one of our best shooters (Finke is better). But he is too one-dimensional to be considered our best scorer - certainly not in the spread system. His playing time will be contingent upon whether Carroll transfers, whether we can sign Smith, and how fast the other wings develop.

FosterFanClub on March 20, 2017 @ 11:46 AM

We shouldn't forego the possibility of JCL developing at least his ball handling this offseason. That would go a LONG way, because we know he is a plus passer, even if he isn't a great finisher (although he is fairly savvy around the rim to at least get fouled). It shouldn't be assumed he WILL successfully develop in necessary areas, but he is not a finished product, either.

Groundhogday on March 20, 2017 @ 05:21 PM

I'm not at all ruling out JCL as a major contributor. As Trevor has suggested, there are ways Underwood can adapt his system to existing personnel. Very few guards with poor ball handling skills become good ball handlers half way through college. He can improve, but will likely always be subpar on that skill. Moreover, he just doesn't have a good feel for unstructured situations, body control on drives, etc... But JCL can certainly shoot, so we'll find ways to get him good shots with other guys on the floor to help with ball handling and driving.

Bear8287 on March 21, 2017 @ 05:01 PM

JCL seems to be too good of a shooter not to work into the flow. If he can continue to up his skills as a passer then there should be opportunities to get open off of screens or dump the ball to someone else.

I'm still really hopeful that DJW is going to get it together. I think he could be special in this system. Finke, Nichols and Williams could make for a really nice front court. I suspect that we could see more jams in a game than we did all season.

Bear8287 on March 21, 2017 @ 04:52 PM

And I'm guessing he's much more able to adapt his scheme to personnel than Groce was.

That's not a very high bar to clear.

Groundhogday on March 20, 2017 @ 01:29 PM

Underwood didn't provide a lot of detail in the PC on what he looks for in players, except that in general there is a big emphasis on skills, bball IQ, and competitiveness. Athleticism is important, but not everything.

FosterFanClub on March 20, 2017 @ 02:01 PM

Shooting talent

Groundhogday on March 20, 2017 @ 02:27 PM

Shooting fits under skills. The most important skill. :)

FosterFanClub on March 20, 2017 @ 02:54 PM

Yeah, just making sure we note that was specifically noted, whereas nothing else under "skills" was, just that players are "skilled". For example, going forward, does a guy like TJL get a look who isn't a high level scorer coming out of HS?

Groundhogday on March 20, 2017 @ 04:46 PM

Of the three returning guys who might not be the best fit, I'm highest on the potential for Lucas to become a key player in this system. He is a late bloomer who is a bit bigger and quicker than we though on signing day. Decent outside shot at present that might become reliable. High bball IQ. I think he is someone Underwood can work with. At a minimum Underwood always likes to have one true PG on the floor and Frazier isn't going to be able to play 40 mpg. Moreover, there are times when we might see Lucas + Frazier on the court together as Underwood often plays two shorter guards together.

Bear8287 on March 21, 2017 @ 05:05 PM

Really like Lucas' BBall IQ. He'll also fight for playing time. I don't see him going away without a fight. He's also been a real spark this season for the Illini. If one of the incoming freshman want some of his minutes, they're going to have to take them from him, because I don't see T'JL as the kind of guy who will just give them away.

BexleyIllini on March 20, 2017 @ 01:56 PM

Enjoyed the review on the Underwood Offense. Can I assume there will be a similar article on the Underwood Defense?

Groundhogday on March 20, 2017 @ 02:40 PM

Guys who really fit Underwood's offensive system: Finke, Nichols, DJ Williams & Frazier (also Mark Smith or Carroll if we can land them)

Guys who might fit it in time, with development: Tilmon, Pickett, Damonte Williams. At present, all three are good/great athletes with good size for their positions. All three need substantial skill development.

Not a great fit, but Underwood will make the most of their abilities: JCL, Black, Lucas. All three have some strengths/skills, but also some limitations in this system. Ironically, two are among the most highly rated Groce recruits.

Groundhogday on March 20, 2017 @ 03:34 PM

I should be clear that JCL, Black and Lucas will all play. The coach will adapt to the talent on hand. But ideally JCL would be a catch-and-shoot guard in a very scripted, deliberate system. Black would be a rebounder and defender stepping out for the mid-range baseline jumper on offense. Lucas would be feeding the post, hitting open jumpers and providing reliable ball handling as a traditional PG.

iluvrt on March 20, 2017 @ 03:25 PM

This is so great. We go from the smelly underwear offense to the Underwood offense.

Groundhogday on March 20, 2017 @ 07:14 PM

Harrington on Tay and J

  • JCL. Sean suggests that this system will be great for JCL. He really struggled to create off the dribble, but in this system the offense will create layups for him cutting to the basket and complement his shooting.
  • Finke. Could be 4 or 5. Lot of good looks at the 4. Walkup was a star at the 4 for Stephen F Austin. (Note that Walkup was a 6-4 player now a guard in the NBA development league.)
  • Black. Needs to improve his passing, but could get more offense via back screens or dives for easy baskets.

Key identify for Underwood, Huggins, Frank Martin is toughness. All play very physical, tough ball. Eventually that will be a key part of his identity at Illinois.

Trevor on March 20, 2017 @ 08:15 PM

Thanks for the summary. This is definitely an offense where you can find ways it lets everyone shine in a new way.

I don't think I agree that JCL will be successful cutting to the bucket. I think he'll do well just not slashing.

Finke I prefer at the 5 because he's the second best passer on the team.

Black could make hay as a garbage man/lob getter. He could also gum up the works by not cycling the ball fast enough.

Groundhogday on March 20, 2017 @ 08:27 PM

Sean was being positive. With JCL he is just thinking that a few back cuts would keep teams from overplaying JCL, give him some easy baskets.

I agree with Finke at the 5. He really isn't nearly as mobile or as good a ball handler as Walkup, so I didn't get the comparison. I can see Finke playing the 4 at times in certain matchups but he is a perfect 5 in this offense. (Defense is another matter.)

Sean had the most doubt about Black, but was trying to find something positive to say. Analysts have to be positive in this situation. But to be honest, this could be a welcome change for Black because he certainly wasn't thriving in Groce's system. He could certainly be the screener, and hit the FT jumper. Maybe his passing would improve with coaching.

Groundhogday on March 20, 2017 @ 10:04 PM

Thoughts from tonight's Boise State game:

  • Our three best players (Hill, Morgan, Abrams) are leaving. Underwood will be molding a relatively young and inexperienced team next year. It might take time.
  • Nice game from Black, but he is definitely more 5 than 4 in Underwood's system. Seems even less quick/athletic than as freshman.

Bear8287 on March 21, 2017 @ 05:12 PM

Our three best players (Hill, Morgan, Abrams) are leaving.

Yeah, given that I'm still waiting to get OJ on the record for what his prediction would've been for a Groce led Illini team next year. Based on his philosophy, it would have to be worse than this year.

ijustkrushalot on March 21, 2017 @ 02:40 PM

sooo... Leron Black is Emre Can, right?

Trevor on March 22, 2017 @ 08:36 AM

This is a shockingly good comparison. Both arrived with a ton of promise they haven't made good on. Both show flashes of being physically dominant players. Both throw down the rashest of fouls. Perfect.

ijustkrushalot on March 22, 2017 @ 09:14 AM

I was going to throw out Daniel Sturridge then figured that Can was the perfect fit... who's more likely to just dump some guy on his hindquarters in counterattack/fast break?

I was also going to try and make some rant about who is Mane and Coutinho and Origi and then thought that whole line of discussion would get a bit overwrought.

Bear8287 on March 21, 2017 @ 04:32 PM

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My initial reaction to seeing '5', was what's Finke doing out there? :-D

Groundhogday on March 21, 2017 @ 08:37 PM

I looked him up: Jacob Parker. 6'6" 210 lbs. He looks big because the rest of the team is so small. Finke is a good 4 inches taller and probably 20 lbs bigger. But the sure look similar in build and hair!

Bear8287 on March 21, 2017 @ 08:52 PM

I guess we'll take this to mean that Coach Underwood is probably going to be "good" with the man-bun. :-)

Groundhogday on March 22, 2017 @ 03:06 PM

Yep. But only for the 5 position. :)

Bear8287 on March 23, 2017 @ 02:25 AM

Speaking of offense. The Illini got down early against UCF and looked like the Illini of earlier in the B1G part of the season.

Have to give them credit though. They did fight back. The defense was adequate tonight, but the offense was pretty atrocious. The Illini out shot UCF 62-49 but made 3 fewer baskets. Ugh. Had some good looks at open 3's late in the game, but couldn't get them to go down.

Illini won the points off turnovers 19-9, but still lost by 10 points. Ouch.

Illini got hammered on the boards 26-43, but some of that is to be expected when a team shoots so poorly. Fall pretty much negated Morgan holding him to one rebound for the evening while, Davis, Fall and Banyard went for 9, 10 and 10 rebounds respectively.

Malcolm finished with 29 points and 6 rebounds. 3rd highest scorer in Illini history plus did so much more for the team. It's a shame that he never got a chance to play in an NCAAT game. Hopefully that all ends now.

Already looking forward to next season and a more exciting brand of Illini basketball.

HiggsBoson on March 23, 2017 @ 06:41 AM

I'm looking forward to not having to watch this particular edition of Illini basketball anymore. My first though last night was "didn't we fire John Groce already?".

Groundhogday on March 23, 2017 @ 02:38 PM

Glad to be done with the Groce era, but we will miss Hill next year. I sure hope Underwood can land Smith or Carroll transfers because the returning talent is either not great or terribly inexperienced.

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