Point of interest: Jordan key to turnaround for Illini's offense

Point of interest: Jordan key to turnaround for Illini's offense

CHAMPAIGN — Illinois men's basketball didn't lack for some standout offensive performances in the 2017-18 season.

Like Trent Frazier knocking down seven three-pointers and scoring 27 points at home against Iowa, then doing the same for 32 points against Wisconsin a month later.

Or Kipper Nichols posting a career-high 31 points at Madison Square Garden in the Illini's final game of the season in the Big Ten tournament against Iowa.

The Illinois offense as a whole, though, had its struggles in Brad Underwood's first season as coach. The Illini were among the Big Ten's least efficient offenses with three-point shooting and turnovers the biggest issues.

Underwood expects more from his offense in year two. The familiarity with what was an entirely new system last season should only help.

"I think we'll see a huge jump in our veterans," Underwood said. "Comfort in knowing, 'Hey, if I cut really hard here I've got a chance to get a first-cutter layup.'

"There was indecisiveness this year because things were new. Things were different. You didn't always know where you were going to get those opportunities."

Aaron Jordan already has a big offensive jump under his belt after one season playing for Underwood. It took the 6-foot-5 guard just two games in 2017-18 to top his scoring total from his entire sophomore season, and he was a lethal three-point shooter throughout the nonconference portion of Illinois' schedule.

"I'd really say being myself and being back to who I knew I was and who I've been all along," Jordan said about what was key to the strong start to his junior season. "I had no worries other than to go out there, play my hardest and play for my team."

Jordan said he's seen improvements in the offense this spring for the Illini because of the knowledge they picked up last season.

"We know what to expect and know what to do and what not to do," he said. "A lot of understanding. Pretty much just understanding how the offense is supposed to flow, where guys are supposed to be and expectations especially. They're always high — being in the right spot, making the right play and getting your teammates better."

Jordan's production dipped in Big Ten play last season, but he started to show signs late in the year of playing with the same consistency he had through November and December. That's what Underwood wants to see from his lone senior all the time.

"He's got to become better at not just stepping into shots but coming off screens and off movement," Underwood said. "We've worked really hard this spring at cleaning up some footwork things with him. That will allow him to be a little more consistent as well."

Familiarity with the Illinois offense — where he can get his shot and where he can score — will only help Jordan's consistency. That experience, Underwood said, is crucial for the 6-foot-5, 210-pound guard.

"I think he's found out that he can go score points on the offensive glass and that he's better off the dribble than maybe he even thought in terms of attacking," Underwood continued. "We've got to get him to the foul line more. Those are things I think he understands better now than he did a year ago."

Underwood wants Jordan to attack the basket more. Use his size, strength, length and ability to finish above the rim to add another wrinkle to his game.

"The natural progression for a jump shooter to be a very hard guard is to play off your ability to make a three," Underwood said. "When you do that, now you become a pretty lethal weapon. You become a guy that's hard to guard when you can shot fake and drive it and get to the rim."

That's an area of improvement not solely limited to Jordan. Underwood said he wants Nichols to do the same. Driving the basketball is preferable to settling for a contested three-pointer.

"It's just a comfort of not settling and it's a mindset," Underwood said. "It's something we're spending a ton of time on this spring is being more aggressive and being assertive."

That gives Jordan a focus for the final week of Illinois' spring practices and what he can work on during the summer sessions on campus.

"It's really everything because I don't think I'm there for any part of the game — shooting, driving to the basket, defense," Jordan said. "Every aspect I can to help the team."