Dec 19, 2021

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Brad Underwood came to Illinois with the reputation of an offensive guru. He ran hyper-efficient offenses at both Stephen F Austin and Oklahoma State before arriving at Illinois. He built that reputation on the spread offense - a strategy built around five interchangeable offensive players. However, a lack of shooting was the swollen and inflamed Achilles heel of Underwood's first two Illinois teams.

2017-18: 49.8% in effective FG% (213th)/33.2% in 3P% (263rd)

2018-19: 49.6% in effective FG% (230th)/34.5% in 3P% (164th)


But if there has been a trademark of Underwood's tenure at Illinois, it's been his willingness to embrace change based on his roster at hand. Some might say too slowly at times but in any case he's certainly not proven to be a guy married to a system.

And then along came Ayo Dosunmu and Kofi Cockburn. Obviously, a team is going to get better when it gets better players, but Cockburn was not exactly spread offense friendly. Yet when you have the opportunity to bring a once in a program level big man, you do it and figure it out on the fly. Which Underwood did.

For example, Cockburn wasn't going to be defending ball screens 25 feet from the basket on defense, so Underwood scrapped his "on the line-up the line" pressure style he used at SFA and OSU in favor of a more traditional drop coverage/keep the ball out of the middle Texas Tech defense. This move paid immediate dividends with the Illini defense improving from 108th in KenPom defensive efficiency in 2019 to 35th in 2020.

On offense, Cockburn wasn't going to be a guy you wanted manning the pinch post so Underwood scrapped the spread in favor of a ball screen heavy offense that put the ball in the extremely capable hands of Dosunmu and allowed Cockburn to punish teams on the roll. Again - dividends. 83rd in offensive efficiency in 2019/38th in offensive efficiency in 2020.

This season promised to be more of the same on offense with Andre Curbelo primed to take over the Ayo role, but this time with new and improved shooting!! One reason many observers (myself included) thought this team had a chance to be even better on offense this season was the squadron of shooters Underwood finally had at his disposal. Teams simply weren't going to be able to help from the perimeter on ball screens with Trent Frazier, Alfonso Plummer, and Jacob Grandison lurking on the arc.

Yes, teams were going to use drop coverage against us to force Curbelo into shooting the ball, but he had established a mid range game last season that figured to help mitigate that strategy.

However, Curbelo smacked his head on the floor in an exhibition game in October and everything changed again. He was a post-concussive mess in the games he played after trying to come back and the Illini offense grinded to an excruciating halt.

So Underwood did what he's done since he got here - he changed things up again. He pivoted from a ball screen oriented offense to a more NBA style offense predicated on post feeds, dribble penetration, and ball movement. ".5 Offense" is the term he used to describe the strategy after the Rutgers game. The ".5" refers to the maximum amount of time in seconds the ball is allowed to be stationary - 1/2 second.

This new evolution of the offense has accomplished two things. It's carved out operating space in the post for Cockburn while also creating passing angles out of the post to free up shooters to bomb away from the perimeter. This change also created a new monster in Alfonso Plummer. (That's three things, but I needed to get some Plummer superlatives in there somewhere.) Over the past seven games, he's legitimately emerged as one of the best shooters/scorers in college basketball. He's averaged 23 points per game over that stretch on the strength of 48% shooting from deep. Oh, and he's also perfect from the free throw line (33/33) on the season. The school record for consecutive free throw makes is 39 - by Kiwane Garris - if you're wondering. Imagine that there are lists out there like this one which don't even mention him.


Basketball can be such an easy game when you have shooters and this Illinois team is flush with them. Today against St Francis (PA) it was basically unfair. They had little chance at defending Kofi with their starting center checking in at a Nick Smith-esque 215 pounds and an even smaller chance at defending the arc with their chosen strategy of going under ball screens against Plummer, Frazier, and Grandison. That's how you get to a 106-48 final margin.

We made a school record 18 threes today and it was our fifth straight game with at least 11 made threes. Over that stretch, we are shooting 44% from the arc. We are shooting 39% on the season - good for 15th in all of college basketball. Take out the 3/22 abomination against Cincinnati, and we'd be 8th best in the country.

Of course, stats don't work that way - you are always going to have outliers, but I cherry picked that Cincy game for a reason. Go back and watch the 72-52 whipping the Bearcats put on this team if you want to see a broken offense. Actually don't do that - you'll hate yourself for it. If you did you would see Kofi getting double and triple teamed with exactly zero pass attempts combined with a disjointed jumble of off-the-dribble mid-range jumpers and no-pass three point attempts.

Now you see an inside-out oriented offense which is putting great shooters in a position to get quality looks from the arc when defenses collapse on a now willing passer in Cockburn. This team has also been gradually erasing mid range shots from its repertoire and it's paying off in spades. We have climbed back up to 11th in offensive efficiency per KenPom. Just take a long sweet marvelous look at this shot chart.

As Underwood said in the post game press conference - it's an NBA coach's dream. That shot chart is visual evidence of a ridiculously efficient offense. Consider 1.74 points per possession today as evidence.

And if that's not good enough - just watch this possession…

That'll do. Keep on keeping it fresh Brad.


+The 2001/2002 Big Ten Champion teams were celebrated during the game, and while it was great to see Cory Bradford, Lucas Johnson, Damir Krupalija, and even Frank Williams (who was present but opted not to be announced), but I couldn't help but think about the one player who wasn't there. Robert Archibald passed away two years ago next month and his absence made the whole day feel a bit melancholy. RIP big fella.

+Coleman Hawkins entered the game at the 14:28 mark of the first half, and after his man got two offensive rebounds on the same possession, he exited the game just two minutes later. He did not see the floor again until the 10:00 mark of the second half. He acquitted himself nicely in his short stint in the second half and ended the game with 8 points/2 rebounds and a +16 in just nine minutes played, but it remains tough for Underwood to get a handle on the mercurial sophomore. Jeremy Werner of Illini Inquirer asked about Hawkins and I thought Underwood gave a really thoughtful and insightful answer.

Stay tuned.

+Beat MIZNOZ. No seriously, BEAT MIZNOZ!


Lou-a-villini on December 19, 2021 @ 09:46 AM

Any idea as to why Frankie opted to not be announced at halftime?

Walkon on December 19, 2021 @ 10:14 AM

I asked Rod Cardinal and he just shook his head and said “That’s just Frank.”

Andy Kaufmann is the exact same way.

DSpitze on December 19, 2021 @ 01:33 PM

In 1999 or 2000 the Illini came to Sydney on an Australian tour. I was talking with one of the Illinois fans and he told me something Lon Kruger said about Frank. "You have to remember he's a freshman, but he might be a freshman for a long time."

mitchstevens on December 19, 2021 @ 12:43 PM

Great article, hope to see more of what you do. Very informative - I learn something every time I read one of your pieces. Thanks

Bear8287 on December 19, 2021 @ 05:23 PM

Thanks Tyler. Always enjoy your articles and learn something in the process. Hope to see you doing more frequent posts in the future.

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