Te’Jon Lucas returned to practice today for the first time since taking a Mark Smith elbow to the eye socket. His vision may still be a bit blurry. In the team’s first drill, he dropped a pass on the wing, one of “two fumbles in the first 30 seconds!” which is what Brad Underwood roared moments later. It was like that for much of the afternoon. Underwood used more four-letter words today than John Groce did in five years at Illinois. It’s tough love, and sometimes the love is hard to glean. The tough comes across clearly. Underwood is old school. He reminds me of the best coach I ever had, Urbana’s Wayne Mammen. You’ll recall Groce borrowing the Tony Dungy phrase “we want to be demanding without demeaning.” Well, Underwood doesn’t worry about demeaning. Or demanding. Mammen was my football coach, but his best prospect was younger son Kirk, who won two state wrestling titles at 189 lbs. before an All-American career at Oklahoma State. When Tyler Underwood followed his dad from Oklahoma State, no one might have guessed how important his role would be. Coach Underwood is just as hard on Tyler as everyone else. Maybe that’s the reason Tyler’s on the roster: To demonstrate that Brad Underwood still loves you even while he’s tearing you a new asshole. Underwood does what Groce didn’t do and Bruce Weber couldn’t do. He puts the fear of god into his players. Or at least the fear of hell. Whether it’s effort or execution, Underwood does not allow lapses. When the Illini practiced zone offense, Trent Frazier skipped a pass to a verboten area of the court and Underwood stopped play to explain why that particular angle will never work. Underwood had previously, expressly forbidden this kind of pass in that particular situation. This was a teaching moment, reminding the youngsters why they’re taught what they’re taught. The pack line is gone. Since Dick Bennett’s Green Bay teams unleashed it on unsuspecting mid-major offenses, the pack line lost its element of surprise. Disorienting a team’s screening actions is part of Underwood’s plan, and according to his theory, that requires defenses to disrupt traditional passing lanes. Expect defensive intensity to extend beyond the pack line’s imaginary boundary. The Groce administration changed its high-hands philosophy midstream, so the overall look of that scheme changed over the years. But Underwood will challenge ball-handlers deep in the back court, and before the first pass. And then, of course, it gets harder. Big man coach Orlando Antigua chimed in: “Defensively you don’t have a man after the first pass. You’ve got to work harder because of that.” Underwood continued on that theme: “When I was at Kansas State, Jacob Pullen scored 46 straight points in this drill. Defense can’t stop, ever.” “This is unbelievable. I’m used to Rodney McGruder,” he finished, name-dropping another K-State protégé who, evidently, also tried hard and listened. Chin Coleman helped position the defensive perimeter players at the lane’s elbows, and Underwood made sure Greg Eboigbodin knew exactly how to align his feet vis-à-vis his man. Underwood stressed that “height doesn’t matter” when defending the low post, so long as the perimeter help is doing its job. “Our post defense is great because our perimeter defense is good.” It wasn’t enough. You’ve heard about a player “in the doghouse” but you know that doghouse is simply a phrase. Not with Underwood. His doghouse sits in the southwest corner the the Corzine Gym. When an Illini screws up, he runs the treadmill. Today’s treadmill, in quick succession: AJ, Finke, Greg, Matic, Da’Monte, Kipper & Smith. “Holy #### are you going to look good waving that towel on the sidelines,” Underwood called to a player who seemed a bit too enthusiastic about successive execution failures. “Starched uniform and everything!” And that’s one of the greatest aspects of Brad Underwood. You can’t be a hardass coach all the time without a good sense of sarcasm, irony, even cynicism. A sense of humor is a relatable quality. It lets people know you’re human, that you see life for what it is. The freshmen bigs had the worst of it today. If things go well for Matic Vesel, he may never again turn as red as he did when Underwood stopped a drill to single-out the Slovenian newcomer. “These guys didn’t come here to see you lollygagging in the corner,” yelled the coach, only he didn’t use the word “lollygagging.” These guys were a small group of NBA scouts who watched the entire practice. Matic spent the last hour of practice with his right foot elevated, in a compression boot. He’d landed awkwardly, with an entire Michael Finke on top of him. After practice, he limped to the locker room unaided, but slowly. Don’t expect him to be too active for the rest of the week. Matic and Greg are both way, way too gentle & kind to kick ass and take names the way Underwood demands. Matic is still adjusting to America, which he regards as remarkably laid back. So maybe he’s just trying to fit in. Greg is just super, duper polite. Greg’s bad day began when he attempted a spin move on the baseline. First of all, he stepped out of bounds, but nobody saw that. Then, he pivoted to dunk. That’s when he encountered Leron Black, whose one-handed rejection made a clapping sound like thunder, but more expressive. NO YOU AIN’T it seemed to say. Perhaps chastened, Greg’s next offensive move saw him spin away from the basket, to launch an 8-foot fadeaway that barely grazed the rim. Underwood stopped the drill again. “You left that move at Jesuit High School.” Antigua chastised the move as well. “You take it in there strong and pick up a foul,” he admonished. Where were these guys when Nnanna Egwu was playing here? If Greg and Matic aren’t ready for B1G level ball by December, well, they’re freshmen. It’s not an indictment of their character or potential. So who will guard those spots? Leron wears a big brace on his shooting arm. He’s still recovering from the elbow surgery which fixed what Underwood described as “imagine you got hit in the funny bone, but it feels like that all the time.” His rebounding hasn’t changed. It’s fantastic. But his three-point shooting has not improved. It’s probably worse than the 29.7% he accomplished last year. Underwood likes stats, and he heeds them. He’s also not afraid (so he says) to tell his players which among them can shoot from where, when, and in what circumstances. That leads us to the next undersized big man. Kipper Nichols seems to spend most of his time on the wing, but he’s usually in the fight for a rebound, and he’s got a post-up game which Leron frankly does not have. You can see Kipper defending the 4 while creating an offensive mismatch at the other end. Does that mean you should pencil Leron Black in at the five spot? It worked okay for Daryl Thomas, whose physique and skill set were similar. But things worked even better for Thomas when he had Dean Garrett by his side. So Illini fans should hope someone becomes Dean Garrett. But more likely, Illini fans should hope Underwood finds a Dean Garrett for next year. CLOSING THOUGHTS It’s especially stupid to project starters given all the recovering injuries, newcomers, dearth of returning talent. Furthermore, Illini fans should hope that “starting” means little in the scheme Brad Underwood conjures. But if we can take him at his word, Underwood has decided on one starter for Sunday’s “secret scrimmage.” It’s Da’Monte Williams. After a spectacularly aggressive rebound in traffic, Underwood stopped play again. “Do you know who’s leading this team in rebounds through all these practices?” He pointed to the quietest guy on the team. “It’s him. That’s why he’s starting on Sunday.” Practice finished with a lay-up drill in which players could approach the basket only from the left-hand side, and a final half-court five-on-zero passing drill. The team missed a lot of free-throws today — including Tyler, Te’Jon and Finke — the guys everyone is counting on to keep them from extra wind sprints. So they ran a lot. Kipper, AJ, Te’Jon, Tyler, Samson Oladimeji and Mark Alstork hung around for extra shooting while staff socialized. Don’t be upset that Alstork wasn’t mentioned previously in this post. It means he avoided the coach’s ire. He again paced the team in wind sprints.
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.
There’s still no official word that Jamall Walker will remain with Brad Underwood’s staff. There’s no reason to believe he won’t.
The other positions? We don’t know.
Walker’s retention was considered vital to the retention of St. Louis-area recruits. That’s part of his territory, as is Texas, where Brad Underwood already has plenty of contacts.
Has Walker been the best Illini recruiter over the past five years?
The two breakout players this season were scouted by Paris Parham and Dustin Ford. Ford’s assigned territory includes Ohio. Parham’s area includes Wisconsin.
As America’s coaching fraternity packs for a trip to Phoenix this week, many of them don’t know where they’ll be working next week. But they’ll probably find out soon.
Parham will be in Phoenix and, until anyone tells him otherwise, he says he’ll be there as a representative of the University of Illinois. The airfare and accommodations were booked long ago, but the staff is not traveling together.
Should Parham be retained based on his contacts with up-and-coming recruits? If not, who else would be Illinois basketball’s “Chicago Guy?”
Stephen Bardo cautions Illini fans eager to bring back one of their own.
It’s tough for anyone to hire another coach if they don’t have an existing relationship. That’s one of the reasons why Jamall was kept, he had a really good previous relationship with Underwood. We’ll see what happens but in the meantime it would be wise for Deon, Roger Powell, Jerrance Howard, and Dee Brown to start to develop a relationship with Josh Whitman and Brad Underwood.
Walker downplayed the earlier relationship. “We knew each other but it wasn’t like we were boys. However, we knew some of the same people back in Kansas.”
Who are those folks back in Kansas? Well, if you didn’t know, Jamall Walker is a Wichita native. Underwood recruited his older brother.
Underwood remembers it differently, at least for public consumption. i.e. he didn’t talk about meeting Jamall’s brother.
He talked about recruiting Jamall himself.
Walker didn’t name names, but he offered this observation about the forthcoming Underwood staff:
We have talked a little about the assistant coaches and he is going to hire who he thinks gives us the best chance to win and get good players from the state and in other regions that a guy can tap into. You have Bret Just on your side and that is key.
If you haven’t been following every bit of Underwood minutiae, here’s what Jamall means by “Bret Just.”
According to a source within the program, the “Chicago Guy” probably won’t be Dennis Gates, either. Whatever level of interest Illinois expressed, it doesn’t seem to have been reciprocated
Dildy is the cousin of Chicago State’s head coach Tracy Dildy. The Dildy name is well-known in Chicago Hoops circles. Emanuel spent three years as an assistant at Loyola Chicago before joining Kim Anderson for one last disastrous season in Columbia. Like Walker, Dildy is a guards coach. But don’t be surprised if the next staff, like the Groce administration, features four point guards. (Note though that UIC’s bio for Coleman says that during his first season at UIC, Coleman helped sophomore forward/center Tai Odiase “develop into one of the top rim protectors in the country.”)
Coleman interviewed with John Groce for Isaac Chew‘s job in the summer of 2012. That job went to Parham.
Coleman instead joined Tim Miles at Nebraska for six months, as Director of Player Development. (He’d been an assistant coach for Miles at Colorado State.) Then he joined Dustin Ford’s brother Geno for one year in Peoria, orchestrating the final demolition of Bradley Braves basketball. Coleman worked with Thomas for a year under Steve McClain at UIC From 2005-11, Coleman was the head coach of Chicago’s Mac Irvin Fire AAU team.
And speaking of Steve McClain, his assistant coaching position at Indiana was filled by former Illini star Rob Judson, who is also available for hire. Judson is arguably the most successful assistant of the last quarter century, having helped both Lon Kruger and Bill Self to B1G championships.
The assistant positions might be finalized by this afternoon. Maybe they’ll be finalized in Phoenix, over the weekend.
Then again, remember how this worked five years ago. The Illini athletic director promoted the ace recruiter to the interim position. The new head coach did not retain him. Two of the new head coach’s initial hires departed Champaign almost immediately. A third left within a year.
Whatever happens in Phoenix doesn’t stay in Phoenix.