Illini getting defensive this season

Illini getting defensive this season

CHAMPAIGN — It was Brad Underwood's offensive system that drew attention in his one season at Oklahoma State. The Cowboys went from the 151st most efficient offense in the country during Travis Ford's final year to No. 1 with Jawun Evans running the point for Underwood.

While Underwood's defensive scheme is plugged as unique in the Big Ten for its aggressive ball pressure and denial, only one of his teams — his last at Stephen F. Austin — cracked the top 50 in adjusted defensive efficiency. That's the measure of points allowed per 100 defensive possessions adjusted for quality of opposing offense and where and when each game is played, with recent games receiving more weight.

Still, Illinois' defensive improvement in year two with Underwood is tangible. Both statistically — the Illini have improved 61 spots in the KenPom rankings for adjusted defensive efficiency — and in the eye test. Wisconsin's Khalil Iverson aside, Illinois is getting back cut or beat off the dribble and dunked on considerably less than both last year and earlier this season.

"I'm pretty pleased with where we're at," Underwood said. "Our ball pressure's been good. We've been taking people out of what they want to do. I'm in a pretty comfortable spot with all of that right now."

Higher defensive efficiency is the end result of the improvements Illinois has made in multiple areas.

The Illini might not be among the nation's elite in many defensive statistical categories, but they are allowing fewer offensive rebounds, blocking slightly more shots and allowing lower percentages on both two- and three-pointers this season than last.

What hasn't changed is Illinois' ball pressure. It still turns normally sure-handed, ball secure teams into turnover machines. The Illini lead the Big Ten and rank 13th nationally in defensive turnover rate, forcing turnovers on 23.2 percent of their opponents' possessions.

Illinois' defensive turnover rate currently mirrors the team's number from last year, although it has dipped slightly from earlier this season.

"Part of it is we're facing really good teams with really good guards who are all Quadrant 1 type teams," said Underwood, who added the Illinois coaching staff had discussed that. "You have a tendency to not turn those teams over maybe as much."

That defensive pressure — Illinois' overall improved defense — starts in the backcourt. The trio of Trent Frazier (and his All-Big Ten Defensive Team aspirations), Ayo Dosunmu and Andres Feliz are the tip of the spear. They've honed their skills against each other each day in practice.

"If you don't guard Ayo in practice or don't guard Andres in practice you get embarrassed pretty easy," Underwood said about Frazier's status probably leading those three defensively. "Most of the year, very few games, has he been not good on the ball. Andres has probably improved as much as anybody on the ball.

"You don't get one, you get three of them when you see it. I hope there's confidence there. It's the point of our defense, and, in actuality, it's probably as big a part of everything we do is ball pressure."

Dosunmu, like Underwood, draws a line directly from Illinois' improved defense and the improved results on the court. The Illini are ninth in the Big Ten, having won five of their last seven games after starting league play with five straight losses.

"(Underwood) challenges us a lot in film," Dosunmu said. "If someone blows by us, he won't sugarcoat it with us. We're competitive, so we don't want that to be said about us.

"You never want a time where you're in practice it's a cakewalk because when you get in a game and play some tough guards, it's really not realistic. The situation we have here is great. It's tremendous. I love it, and I feel like we're getting better and better each and every day. Our practices are so hard so when we play in a game it's much easier."

The Illini know what they do defensively is different. They know it can get in opposing players' heads. Like Wisconsin's Ethan Happ. The redshirt senior forward's production this season against Illinois in two games? Just 15 points — his only two single-digit scoring performances — to go along with nine turnovers.

"That's what our defense does," Illinois senior guard Aaron Jordan said. "It's a mind game. Just knowing you've got to go up against that pressure one night (or two) out of the year messes with people."

"Our defense kind of, not really, but scares other teams because we put so much pressure on other teams," freshman forward Giorgi Bezhanishvili said. "We play so hard on the defensive end nobody really wants to play against it. We don't want to play against it in practice. That's kind of funny, but that's how it is."