Underwood seeks growth from Illini defense

Underwood seeks growth from Illini defense

CHAMPAIGN — All those corner three-pointers Illinois Wesleyan hit on Friday night at State Farm Center? All those three-pointers in general the Titans knocked down (13 on 52 percent shooting) in the exhibition game?

“Give Illinois Wesleyan a tremendous amount of credit,” Illinois coach Brad Underwood said. “They really just made shots. Not to discredit anything they did, most of them were our philosophical breakdowns. For the first five or six threes anyway. We just helped out of the strong side corner, which we never do. It wasn’t just one guy. It was quite a few of them.”

More of those “philosophical breakdowns” came for Illinois in the second half. Underwood liked what his team did defensively in the first 20 minutes. Not as much when Illinois Wesleyan cut its deficit from 24 points at the midway point of the half to 11 points just 5 minutes later.

“We forced a good amount of turnovers in the first half,” Underwood said. “We took them out of what they wanted to do. Most importantly, we guarded the basketball.

“We all saw in the second half what happens when you don’t guard the ball. We just let up — plain and simple — and we can’t do that. The one thing they did was started making shots, and that puts a little heat on you. …  We’ve got to grow. It’s not a 20-minute game. It’s a 40-minute game, and we’ve got to continue to work toward that goal.”

The newest wrinkle for the Illinois defense this season is a three-quarter court, diamond-and-one press. The Illini have more players capable of guarding the ball in Underwood’s estimation, and the press is also a way to use his long-armed roster as a menace in passing lanes.

The results were mixed early in the game as Illinois Wesleyan countered the press in a way Illinois wasn’t expecting — something Underwood said is the disadvantage to having no film or scouting on the Titans.

“ I think we were very, very poor in it early,” he said. “It’s something I want to be able to play to shrink the clock. I thought we had some success with it at times. It’s something we’ll continue to grow with and get better at as we go, and think we can be very good at it.

“I think we had a couple possessions where we were pushing a 10-second count. I like that. We’ve got to get in it a little bit quicker. We’ve got two or three things we do out of that. It’s something over the course of time that can be really effective for us.”

Illinois sophomore guard Trent Frazier mostly liked what the Illini did defensively in the press. Nearly 40 percent of the turnovers Illinois forced were straight steals. Freshman guard Ayo Dosunmu — one of the many long-armed players on the roster — led the team with four steals, senior guard Aaron Jordan had two and five other players, Frazier included, had one steal apiece.

“We’ve got a lot of length on this team, so we can pick up the ball three-quarters of the court early and for long periods of time during the game,” Frazier said. “It helps our transition offense go smoother because we can get out and run. We’ve got a lot of things to work on in our halfcourt defense — getting to the ball and stuff — but other than that I think we did all right.”