Buy-in to Underwood's tempo, pacing evident in Illini early on

Buy-in to Underwood's tempo, pacing evident in Illini early on

CHAMPAIGN — Brad Underwood made his preference clear when he was hired at Illinois. All that talk about scoring in seven seconds or less — a phrase borrowed from the Mike D'Antoni era Phoenix Suns — wasn't just idle ruminations.

Underwood's desired first option on offense is to push the ball in transition. Probably his second and third, too. He wants to run.

It didn't really happen in his first season at Illinois. The Illini's transition numbers from percentage of initial shots taken in the first 10 seconds of the shot clock to effective field goal percentage in those situations were basically in line with what they did under John Groce.

Less than a quarter of Illinois' possessions were considered in transition a year ago. It was a drop-off from Underwood's last team, with the 2016-17 Oklahoma State team getting 32.4 percent of its first shots in the first 10 seconds of a possession.

This season? The Illini are moving even faster — at least in a small, two-game sample size — with 40.3 percent of their first shot attempts coming in transition. Shot attempts they're converting with an effective field goal percentage of 71 percent.

Illinois started the season scoring 45 points in less than seven seconds in its season-opening win against Evansville.

"They pass, one," Underwood said about what has made this team more effective in transition. "Secondly, we've been able to turn some people over and create some live ball turnovers. This group is so unselfish. We made so many extra passes. When you start pushing that ball ahead and playing faster than the defense can get back, you've got an opportunity to be really effective that way."

Aaron Jordan is the only four-year player on the Illinois roster. He has the best understanding of the pace the Illini have played out in a recent history type of way. Has he ever seen Illinois play this fast?

"No, I have not," the Illini senior said succinctly. "We've got a lot of athletic guys. We just get out and run. That's Underwood's system — get out and run. He kept telling us, 'Run, run, run.' Like literally.

"We trust that. When you see someone get a three because they ran, that makes you want do it. Or Giorgi (Bezhanishvili) running the paint, we can hit him. It just opens up so much when you run."

This mostly new Illinois team has bought in fully to Underwood's ideas of tempo and pace. Freshman guard Ayo Dosunmu went as far to say it's how the Illini have to play.

"Coach Underwood always says, 'Four minutes, give it all you've got and then someone else comes in to get you out,' " Dosunmu said. "We can wear teams out. Teams that don't go as deep as us, when it gets deep down in the game — second half, under 10 minutes — they'll get tired. We've got fresh bodies coming in and out."

Illinois managed 27 points in less than seven seconds in its 88-80 loss to Georgetown this past Tuesday night. But that's a number Underwood was still pleased with playing a high-major opponent. What hurt the Illini against the Hoyas was not having Trent Frazier — another ball handler and one of the main instigators of the Illini's transition offense.

"Trent does an incredible job of getting us into offense," Underwood said. "The one thing we didn't do in the Georgetown game was get into our transition stuff. We played into our halfcourt spread and we were good at it and we did some good things in it, but that's where those news guys have got to grow and flow and get into offense and keep the defense moving."

Frazier's ability to take over games last season often came in the form of the 6-foot-1 guard raining three-pointers on Illinois' opponents. While he missed the Georgetown game in the Illini's concussion protocol, he showed his effect can be wider than as just a scorer this season by putting up seven assists and zero turnovers in the opener against Evansville.

"We have a lot of great players," Frazier said. "I don't have to score the ball all the time. That's a good thing right there. I can just trust these guys to make plays. I'm really focusing on taking care of the ball as a point guard. Being a veteran, I think I know the game more, so me being more comfortable and confident out there, I can handle the pressure at any time and get my teammates involved."

Scott Richey covers college basketball for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at 217-351-5605, by email at srichey@news-gazette.com and on Twitter@srrichey.

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