As long as Brad Underwood allows media access to his practices, I’ll try to figure out something interesting to say about them. If I can’t think of anything interesting to write, I won’t waste your time. (This is the advantage of running a website rather than a daily newspaper.)
The most obvious difference between Underwood and John Groce is that Groce wore a headset microphone in practice. Underwood doesn’t even have a whistle. But despite his smooth, soft speaking voice, he does yell like the angry badass you were expecting. He’s the coach you remember from the good old days before political correctness, who told you when your effort/execution wasn’t going to cut it, and indeed exactly how your opponent would carve your ass up.
Orlando Antigua does use a whistle, which shows that Underwood doesn’t impose his style on his colleagues. And “colleague” is an apt term for describing this staff. At various moments, Antigua was the only person speaking. At a different moment, it was Chin Coleman conducting the lesson.
Practice began with a short speech from Mannie Jackson. He told the team “It’s not about you. It’s about the guys around you.”
That was followed by Jerry Colangelo, who asked the team which among them came from Chicago. (Cameron Liss sort of raised his hand.) If Colangelo was flustered by the dearth of Windy talent, he didn’t flinch. He said of the city “the further north you go, the more money you have. Well, I’m from about 25 miles south of Chicago.”
The thing that stood out most, in observing individual players, was Mark Alstork’s speed and conditioning. The team ran a set of wind sprints (full court, up and back twice) and by the third leg, Alstork had a five yard lead on the next closest guy.
There were no laggers, and no other leaders. Everyone else was more or less grouped together. But Alstork was way, way ahead.
The last time I saw such a distinct speed differential, it was D.J. Richardson leaving Alex Legion in the dust, also during wind sprints. That was before everyone realized that Legion was a bust.
If Dee Brown didn’t teach you how important speed can be in this game, Kalin Lucas probably did — the hard way.
The other intriguing individual performance was Matic Vesel. He can shoot. It might seem like a necessary faculty for a basketballer, yet so many are are no better than you are, just taller.
Matic is taller than you are, and he can shoot better than you can.
American kids evidently don’t know about the mid-range jumper. In Slovenia, I guess they’re still teaching it. Matic does not miss.
(Illini Sports Information Director Derrick Burson, right, is fascinated by Da’Monte Williams’s hands. They do indeed look just like Frank’s hands.)
I had a conversation with Brad Sturdy in the Memorial Stadium press box Friday night. We agreed that Matic was not built for boxing out. He won’t play with his back to the basket.
But Brad says Vesel can play the four in Underwood’s offense, stretching the floor.
Lukas Kisunas, on the other hand, would flatten anyone guarding him in the paint. He watched this morning’s practice, too, as part of his official visit.
Why was the media allowed inside a practice featuring an official visitor? Probably because Brad Underwood has a less-than-chickenshit response to NCAA rules. The Illini basketball program never promoted Kisunas’s presence. The University of Illinois made no mention of Lukas Kisunas.
Lukas Kisunas was not made available for interviews (and neither was Mark Smith). Hence, the U of I did not violate NCAA rules. John Groce and Bruce Weber would have convulsed in fear at the notion of inviting the media during an official visit.
Kisunas was present even as Underwood spoke to the media. You might be able to see it here, assuming I panned my device accurately.
The most memorable lesson from Underwood during this morning’s session concerned fast break defense.
Brad championed his recent Oklahoma State team for its ability to force turnovers. He choreographed a fairly simple set of stances taken by offensive and defensive players in a particular fast break situation.
But he also spoke of the psychological state of the actors in these situations — what one might expect and what one must expect in a defensive posture, and what the driving offensive player is reading.
It seemed like an obvious lesson. But then it occurred to me that, like a lot of obvious lessons, no one ever mentioned it before. There was nuance, mostly to do with geometry (i.e. angles) but that didn’t impede its comprehensibility.
I understood, from the catwalk, how to read an offense in that situation. I knew what Underwood was getting at. I think the players did, too.
It was at this moment that Derrick Burson mentioned that voices are more easily understood on the court than on the catwalk. This was an important point, historically. Bruce Weber and John Groce were often, to a catwalk audience, incomprehensible.
But Underwood is easier to understand than Weber or Groce. His voice, and his way of communicating, are more clear.