Illini still searching for an identity

Illini still searching for an identity

CHAMPAIGN — Identity can be everything for a men's college basketball program.

Some have never changed. Think 42 seasons of Jim Boeheim at Syracuse and his use of a matchup 2-3 zone. Other coaches adapt in special circumstance like former Illiniois coach Lon Kruger at Oklahoma when he tailored his offense almost solely around the likes of Buddy Hield and Trae Young.

Illinois lacked an on-court identity throughout John Groce's five-year run.

The closest approximation was his final two seasons when Malcolm Hill was asked to nearly do it all.

Brad Underwood took steps toward establishing an identity in his first season at Illinois. Opposing coach after opposing coach mentioned how hard the Illini played on defense after Underwood shifted from Groce's pack line to a more aggressive denial-first system.

Offensively? Illinois didn't quite get to what Underwood wanted. The Illini fell short of the type of offense he was able to run in his lone season at Oklahoma State, where the Cowboys had the most efficient offense in the country and ranked fifth nationally in scoring.

The next step for Underwood after one season at Illinois is firming up just what the Illini's identity might be.

"We talked a lot last year about what we did at Oklahoma State scoring 86 points a game and most efficient offense," Underwood said. "I think that's something we weren't necessarily able to do, not that we didn't try to do that. There were personnel things that help in that.

"That's where we have to continue to work on growing our identity — who we are — so people outside this area wherever we recruit or are in the state know this is what Illinois basketball stands for and this is what Illinois basketball is."

The identity Underwood said he wants to establish at Illinois is a winning one. The 2018-19 season won't be about establishing the culture he wants. That was for year one; although, the foundation laid will continue to be built on moving forward.

"It's something we talk about ad nauseam with our players now," Underwood said. "Now it's about taking it to the next step, and that's winning. All of our guys are focused on that. We've put our system in play and our style in play and everybody becomes more comfortable with the winning component.

"Getting to the Big Ten championship level and getting to the Final Four, that's stuff that happens when you have a lot of really good people with high character who want to work to achieve the same common goal. We get to that? This place is elite."

An elite program is the expectation of the Illinois fan base. Underwood knows that. He knows the pride and passion there is for Illini basketball.

"To figure out how to keep this thing moving that they expect and they have and that I want it to have for them, you know, I'm not one to ever rush anything," Underwood said. "Patience isn't one of my strong suits, but I believe in our process because it's worked for me my whole life. I've been blessed to be around great coaches and establish that. I think we've got a process that works and a system that works. Now it's about putting those pieces into it."