The Underwood Defense

Mar 27, 2017

While offense has justifiably dominated the discussion since Brad Underwood's announcement, Underwood considers himself a defense first guy. You heard it in the interview he gave Robert. Coach Underwood noted that in recruiting kids love to hear that they'll score points, but he believes defense wins championships. Yes, it's a bit cliche. Still, that quote speaks to a culture and emphasis on defense you can expect.

When Underwood took over at Oklahoma State, defense rather than offense dominated the discussion. Underwood's Stephen F Austin teams throttled the Southland conference defensively, creating a ton of turnovers and generally frustrating opponents. Underwood's coaching predecessors Huggins and Martin are known for tough nosed pressure defense, not explosive offense. Early practice reports from his first and only year at OSU heard players talk about how tough it was to score with the heavy emphasis on guarding.

I'm not sure we'll see the high octane full court trap defense Huggins employs to great effect at West Virginia, but we'll certainly get a dose of more aggressive defense than we're used to seeing. Underwood's defensive philosophy revolves around making offenses uncomfortable. That is achieved by applying a great deal of ball pressure, and preventing offenses from catching the ball where they want to.

The key to great ball pressure is a tremendous perimeter defender that can pick up at half or three quarter court. He has to prevent the opposing ball handler from easily initiating the offense or getting around him. Jawun Evans performed this function admirably for Oklahoma State. We'll likely tap Te'Jon for this function unless Trent Frazier shows up with some unworldly ability to guard that most freshmen don't have.

With that great on ball defender in place. The other players on defense look to play on the line up the line. The line here refers to an imaginary line drawn from the player you're guarding to the ball. This effectively places defenders between the ball and their man. In contrast, a pack line defense ala Tony Bennett is going to play off the line, generally within some predefined area inside the arc.

Here's a shot of Underwood's SFA group showing the structure of his favored defense. Defenders are in the white pinnies. You can see the point guard applying ball pressure at half court, and all of the remaining defenders are firmly on and up the line.

This is an aggressive set up to prevent the offense from initiating with a simple top to wing pass as most college offenses do. The key here is to prevent any short direct pass. The defenders force passes either long or away from the basket. Underwood wants to force teams to retreat towards half court to catch the ball. If a player must catch with his back to the basket, this will usually allow defenses to scramble back into a solid structure.

What should be obvious here is that you're going to be more susceptible to dribble penetration and back cuts. Therefore there is a lot of emphasis on the on ball defender to not only prevent a drive, but also have active hands that make passing the ball into the middle third of the floor difficult.

At its best, this scheme speeds opponents up, and defenders aggressively attack passes towards half court. It's a defense that creates turnovers and never allows offenses to do what they want to do. To draw a unnecessary dichotomy up the line defense is proactive to pack line's reactive.

This pressure defense worked well for Underwood at SFA and during the non-conference at OSU. When conference play rolled around, Underwood's team was shredded. His team gave up something on the order of 86 points per game to start the Big 12 slate 0-6. A sleepless night led to Underwood switching things up to a more conservative defense.

Underwood dialed back ball denial on the wings and pulled Jawun Evans back to just outside the three point arc.

This led to OSU finishing out Big 12 play 9-3 and Underwood getting a call from Josh Whitman for many dollars.

The question remains whether Underwood's brand of high pressure defense will play up in the Big Ten, or if he'll need to reign things in and apply more pack line principles. Huggins has managed to have success in both the Big East and during two stints in the Big 12 with full court pressure. Jay Wright has managed strong results with a similar style in the Big East. We lack that same case study for the Big Ten.

I personally lean towards Underwood's tough year in Stillwater being the aberration. His Cowboys group gave up a surprising number of three point attempts for the defense they run, and opposing teams converted at a fairly high rate. Given the emphasis on not allowing catches facing the basket at the arc, we should expect Underwood's groups to concede a low number of threes.

Three pointers comprised 35% of all opponent field goal attempts during Underwood's year at OSU. Teams converted those at a 36.4% rate. In contrast, at SFA Underwood's opponents took threes on less than 30% of all attempts, and never finished with a shooting percentage over 34.7%. Huggins and Martin's Big 12 defenses show similar rates of 3 pointers against as Underwood's SFA teams, implying the year in OSU is an outlier.

The question that remains then is how difficult it will be for Underwood to implement this system. He was able to do so successfully at SFA, but OSU was a struggle. He's been with these principles for a long time, however. From interviews and mic'd up practices, he seems to keep things simple. He gives players a limited reads and simple triggers, allowing for instinctual play.

Illinois finished 2016-2017 at 34th in Kenpom Adjusted D. There's hope for the group even though they lose their two most proven perimeter defenders. Te'Jon and Kipper flashed plus defense, JCL picked up quite a bit on that end, and DJ Williams has all of the necessary tools. Javon Pickett and DaMonte Williams both have long arms and average to plus college athleticism, and Tilmon projects as a great rim protector. The question is whether Underwood can put all of these pieces together into an integrated defense quickly.

Given the relative inexperience of our group next year combined with the lack of seniors, we should expect it to be until 2018-2019 to see the full manifestation of Underwood's style. Still, that won't stop me from dreaming on a big 2017-2018 for the rest of the summer.


Bear8287 on March 27 @ 12:51 PM CDT

Still, that won't stop me from dreaming on a big 2017-2018 for the rest of the summer.


The last time I was this optimistic about Illini basketball, the team had just barely missed making it to the Sweet Sixteen. It's been 4 years since that happened.

HiggsBoson on March 27 @ 01:43 PM CDT

Who are these two proven perimeter defenders we're losing? Lucas and Nichols were IMO the only plus defenders on the team. The others were (mostly) adequate.

Groundhogday on March 27 @ 02:49 PM CDT

It may take longer to upgrade the defense than offense. Most of the 2017 class look to eventually be plus defenders, but freshmen are rarely top P5 defenders.

As for the returning guys, I don't think we have ANY top defenders. Both Nichols and Lucas can be plus defenders and Nichols might develop into an elite defender, but that is it. JCL has gone from being awful to okay. Finke gets mauled. Black has been a disappointment defensively, and seems to get slower every year.

My sense is that we'll be a good defensive team by the 2018-19 season, but this year might be a struggle.

Bear8287 on March 28 @ 08:55 AM CDT

I wouldn't be too surprised to see the team look reasonably good defensively in the early non-conference part of the schedule but then run into some issues heading into conference play, much like Underwood experienced his first year at OSU.

The good news is that Underwood is probably already well aware of this and has shown that he can adapt. The challenge of course is as you noted GHD that, " freshmen are rarely top P5 defenders."

I think that both Lucas and Nichols surprised everyone at how well they both played defense for freshmen and maybe we'll get lucky with a couple more surprises.

Groundhogday on March 27 @ 03:33 PM CDT

Youtube of Underwood talking S Carolina Defense

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