Monday’s basketball practice was held at the State Farm Center. Returning to the scene of the crime, if you will.
Losing to Indiana State in Sunday’s “secret scrimmage” will likely be remembered as the first milestone on the road to recovery. The phrase “change the culture” is 2017’s version of “it is what it is,” 2012’s favorite cliché among young ballers. But there’s no better phrase for describing Brad Underwood’s current mission. He took over a club that was accustomed to losing. He thinks they’ve just accepted it. He won’t.
Underwood’s staff learned a lot about their team Sunday. Most of it is intangible, and can’t be translated into data. Sure, they kept track of missed shots. They tracked rebounding. They even know how many times the lads missed an opportunity to set a screen.
But mostly, they learned about posture, effort and mindset. Fundamentally, this team is inexperienced. Most of these guys have never played college basketball. None of them has played for Underwood.
If it seems preposterous to keep mentioning a walk-on in these reports, I say pshaw. Until there’s a practice where Tyler Underwood doesn’t do something exceptional, I’ll keep mentioning him. It’s like his dad vis-à-vis Thomas Walkup. I have not once been in the same room with Brad Underwood when he didn’t mention Thomas Walkup. Monday’s practice was no exception, in both cases. Tyler Underwood directed his teammates through drills, and his dad told a story about Thomas Walkup. I hadn’t heard this particular Walkup story before. It was harrowing. I wonder whether he’ll ever tell it in front of cameras.
Cameras were rolling throughout Monday’s practice. Jason Marry & Zach Altfillisch of Fighting Illini Productions were on hand, and Coach Underwood was mic’d up. You should hope that you’ll be allowed to hear his speech about the secret scrimmage. It was gripping.
Marry also recorded the post-practice huddle at center court, which seemed to last about fifteen minutes.
It’s possible that these moments will be shared with the public. On the other hand, maybe not. Talking to Underwood off-camera last Thursday in New York, I learned he’s not eager to share everything about his practices. He wants to maintain a teaching atmosphere, which is something John Groce said, too. Fighting Illini Productions publishes only those segments of video which the program wants published. So just hope that Underwood isn’t too humble to allow those moments to see daylight.
Apart from Tyler Underwood, the top coach-on-the-floor was Cameron Liss, also a walk-on. On more than one occasion, Liss heeded a coach’s call to help a teammate into the proper positioning & posture during defensive drills. He’s one of only three fourth-year Illini, so his senior leadership is a dire necessity to the team.
These guys are never going to see a whole lot of tick, so I’d like to highlight their contributions to making this team better.
The other two senior leaders are Michael Finke and Leron Black. (Like Liss, they’re technically R-Jr.’s.) The coaching staff doesn’t spend a whole lot of time instructing either of them, which is a good sign. It makes one suspect they’re fundamentally sound.
The other fundamentally sound player is Da’Monte Williams.
Brad Underwood continually draws attention to Da’Monte’s defensive stance, positioning or effort as an example to the rest of the team. This might come as a surprise to people who’d assume Da’Monte is a carbon copy of his father.
You’ll recall Lon Kruger and Bill Self inevitably calling Frank out in the media. You’ll remember Billy Packer’s infamous slight.
I think Frank was misunderstood. But whatever the case, it seems Da’Monte inherited exactly none of those traits which naysayers attributed to his father.
Also surprising are Da’Monte’s decision-making and the mechanical precision of his jump shot. He squares up and delivers like a coach’s son, not a street baller. Defensively, he deflects a lot of passes, a stat Underwood celebrates as much as John Groce did (i.e. Underwood seems to regard an opponent’s pass no differently than a launched shot, or indeed a jump ball — it’s an opportunity for possession).
But Underwood’s defensive philosophy recalls Bruce Weber more than John Groce. It’s about denial, a word that meant something completely different for Weber during his Illini heyday.
There were two times when Weber completely lost his shit while I was in attendance at practice. One featured a lecture about over-emphasising on-ball defense. Weber was apoplectic about the selfish attitude a player implicitly demonstrates when bragging “I shut my man down” or “my man didn’t score.”
“BUT OUR TEAM LOST!” Weber screamed louder than I ever heard him before or later. Underwood feels the same way.
If this year’s Illini squad has trouble with weak-side help defense, blame inexperience rather than misdirected playground swagger. The newcomers will need a while before they shift defensively without thinking about it. That’s why Underwood said “we’ll be a different team on January First. We’ll be different from that January First team when we get to March.” It will be a long slog before Underwood sees something resembling his offense.
It’s worth the wait. Underwood’s option offense should lead to some highly entertaining playmaking. As players learn their reads, you’ll see nifty interior passing, lob dunks when the defense reacts, open jumpers when it refrains.
And then there’s defense, which is harder.
If things go perfectly, Underwood might not need to revert to a familiar pack line defense, as his OK State team forced him to do after an 0-6 conference start last season. But when have things gone perfectly with a team of newcomers?
The difference between Underwood and his predecessors is that Underwood seems less likely to lose his team, mentally. In different ways, Weber and Groce were caricatures susceptible for ridicule. You could attribute respect to them, but they didn’t command it. That’s not the case with Underwood.
Will the newcomers “get it” before the team finds itself buried in the B1G standings?
Matic Vesel is back at full go, after spraining an ankle last week. His quickness to the rim cannot be overstated. It’s hard to believe, and impresses even his teammates, who’ve seen it again and again. He’ll cause a lot of headaches for opponents if his defense reaches a level of competence that affords Underwood the confidence to play him.
Greg Eboigbodin might also be an opponent’s nightmare in the future, but his menace will be seen on the defensive end, where he’ll force shooters to alter shot-trajectory. His instinct for defense is typically African, i.e. you see his footwork, you notice he’s responding to the whole-court flow of the game, and you think “this guy played a lot of soccer.”
It will take time for the lessons to sink in for these freshmen, before they can defend instinctively. Maybe January First. Maybe by March.
The coaching staff realizes they’ll have to be patient.
At the scorer’s table, a shiny silver man-purse overflowed with packs of Extra chewing gum, in at least four flavors. Coaches and players reached in throughout practice to retrieve a stick. “We chew a lot of gum,” said Jamall Walker. “It stops us from yelling so much.”