Illini take step in the right direction

Illini take step in the right direction

CHAMPAIGN — Brad Underwood has used Illinois' first weeks of practice to mix and match lineup combinations.

Sometimes his pairings are to make sure certain players get more repetitions like freshman center Samba Kane, who's still trying to make up the difference from not being on campus this summer. Other pairings give him a look at more nontraditional lineups, like when he uses senior guard Aaron Jordan at "power forward." He's looking at chemistry and maximizing practice time as much as anything.

Underwood hasn't given much thought to actual gameday lineups. The concept of starters doesn't mean as much given the second-year Illinois coach's deep rotation.

What doesn't change regardless of lineup is the identity Underwood wants from his team.

The Illini's identity is multifaceted. It's part versatile, position-less offense and part dogged, denial-heavy defense. It's all tied together by a level of competition that's been raised in the offseason by a group of eight newcomer scholarship players joining just four returning players from Underwood's first season.

"I continue to be amazed at our unselfishness," Underwood said. "We spend a lot of time talking about it. We're a team that wants to lead the country in assists. Our guys compete. This is a fun team. I enjoy coaching this team. Very seldom do I have to get on guys about effort and demand that. This group competes to win. I enjoy it. Some days are better than others, but for the most part, this group is unselfish, they're together and they play really hard."

Underwood's lineup mixing and matching in practice has regularly seen him pit sophomore guard Trent Frazier against freshman guard Ayo Dosunmu. That matchup has epitomized the Illini's competitive nature.

Those two will play together more often than not this season, so Underwood made it a point to team them up during Saturday's open practice at Ubben Basketball Complex.

"I think it's been something that's been good for us," Underwood said of teaming up Frazier and Dosunmu. "They're both unselfish. They both can do different things. It will be fine because it will be based on matchups, who has the ball in their hands more. We can do a lot more ball screen stuff because we have multiple guys."

A two-point guard backcourt would just be the beginning for Illinois. Junior college transfer Andres Feliz is an option to run a three-point guard look if Underwood chooses to do so, and the Illini have even more former point guards on the wing in sophomore guard Da'Monte Williams and freshman guard Tevian Jones.

Versatile options at nearly every position has Illinois much closer to the position-less style Underwood prefers.

"I think the one thing that we have worked very hard at is we have a lot of different pieces," he said. "I think that our skill set is one that I really enjoy. This is a very, very good passing team. Our basketball IQ, I'm having a lot of fun with that because it's pretty high.

"We're getting there. You'll see us play maybe at different times three points guards in a lineup. The versatility that I like is there, and the skill set I'm really positive about."