Times They Are a-Changin (Again)
We are still in "everything has to be published under Robert's byline" mode. Which means that Tyler's article about the basketball game last night (that's this one) will say "Robert" over there but it wasn't written by Robert. Robert is in Florida. Tyler was at the game. Tyler wrote it.
(And then Tyler hopped on an airplane bound for Florida. Which is where I am. I'm Robert. He's Tyler. And this is his article.)
Once again, what's old is new again for Illinois basketball. After a dismal two week stretch, Brad Underwood has once again hopped on the change train. And why not? It's proven to be a successful ride more often than not.
He switched defensive schemes after an 0-6 start in Big 12 conference play during his one season at Oklahoma State. The result? A 10-3 finish to earn an NCAA Tournament spot.
After his first two seasons at Illinois he scrapped his "on the line/up the line" pressure defense to help accommodate Kofi Cockburn. He also abandoned his favored spread offense in favor of a ball screen focused approach designed to better suit the talents of Ayo Dosunmu and Trent Frazier.
The result? Over the course of two years, we went from a school record for losses in a season to the 7th ranked defense per KenPom and a #1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
But with the departures of Ayo, Kofi, and Trent, and after feeling somewhat "scoutable" following second round exits in each of the last two NCAA tournaments,
Underwood had more changes in mind.
The plan for this season was another pivot in both his offensive and defensive schemes. His working theory was to replace the size he was losing in Kofi with size everywhere else on the court, and to replace his smallish backcourt with long and athletic perimeter players who were as skilled on offense as they were disruptive on defense.
So he retooled his roster with an assembly line of seemingly interchangeable guards and wings. Positional size and positionless basketball - on both sides of the floor.
A "five out" offense designed to keep the middle of the floor open for dribble penetration and basketcuts. A "switch everything" defense highlighted by full court pressure the ball and perimeter traps to disrupt opposing offenses.
Sounded great right?
Well, then came the last two weeks. A double digit home loss to Penn State, a lackluster win against KenPom #334 Alabama A&M, and a Braggin' Rights beatdown. So Brad Underwood decided to once again smash that F5 key. He went back into the lab over the past week of practice and started tinkering.
So what did we see to open last night's game against Bethune-Cookman?
For starters, well, new starters. Sencire Harris - he of the relentless energy - started at guard over Skyy Clark who sustained a shoulder injury in practice this week. Also, Dain Dainja earned his first career start - replacing RJ Melendez.
On the floor, the changes were immediately apparent. We saw a decreased emphasis on switching in favor of fighting through ball screens - spearheaded by Harris. He's approaching that Trent Frazier level of being almost unscreenable. After the game Underwood called him one of the best freshman defenders he's coached.
What we did not see was any full court pressure. Not on one single possession by my count.
On offense we dialed the way back machine to 2017 for a return of the spread offense - with a true five man on the floor for the majority of the 40 minutes. Dainja played a season high 26 minutes - and spent most of those minutes in the pinch (high) post where he was quite effective. He would finish the night with a career best 22 points.
The early returns on both ends were quite positive.
We held Bethune-Cookman to just 10 points over the first 15 minutes of the game. Even without pressuring the ball, we still forced 21 turnovers at a 27% clip for the game and held B-C to just 0.68 points per possession.
On offense, the ball movement was crisper and the cutting more evident. Even though the perimeter shooting was spotty (28% from three), we had our best assist rate since the Syracuse game a month ago. We saw first cutter layups, back screen dunks, and ball reversal pin downs - all byproducts of a well run spread offense.
The second half was a rather sloppy affair, but the end result was a drama free 85-52 win over the Reggie Theus led Wildcats. Afterwards, Underwood was quite succinct in his explanation for the hopping back on the change bus.
Why did you change up the defense? "Fouls. We were fouling too much in mismatches off the switches"
Why did you change up the offense? "Passing. Our ball movement has been nonexistent".
Check and check. Ok, but did any of it matter. I mean REALLY matter. This was after all a game against the 345th ranked team in KenPom.
As I tweeted during the game, I'm definitely in a "let's see it when it matters" mode with this team. On Facebook my relationship status would be "It's complicated." While we've seen each of Underwood's last three teams struggle in December before, those struggles were nothing like the odd vibes this team has been giving out over the past three games.
Believe me, I'm more than willing to play the long game and see how these latest changes play out over the balance of the season, because we all watched his last three teams get decidedly better in January and February. Now, was that just because we had two cheat codes in Ayo and Kofi? Or was it because it simply takes time for change to process?
Still, I'm going to need to see some consistency against teams without hyphens or ampersands in their names before I'm going to feel completely comfortable again. That's what we'll get starting next week in Evanston. Show me.