Tate: I like where this is headed

Tate: I like where this is headed

This already looks different.

In a whirlwind seven-month period, new Illini basketball coach Brad Underwood has landed the state's Mr. Basketball in Edwardsville's Mark Smith and 2018's projected top player in Morgan Park's Ayo Dosunmu.

Acquiring the state's blue-chippers back-to-back — it is, remember, a guard's game — is an extraordarily good sign. This happened just once previously since 2000 when Brandon Paul (2009) and Jereme Richmond (2010) signed on with Bruce Weber.

It is also different on the Illini practice court.

A major transformation is taking place, creating questions as to how quickly this revamped squad can meet Underwood's new demands.

That includes denying entry passes and pressuring (without allowing layups) on defense, and executing an up-tempo, backboard-attacking offense (without too many backfires).

"We have a lot to learn," acknowledges Underwood while, in busying himself with media obligations, he is strikingly more positive in his public statements than with his Ubben admonishments. Illini players will concede that they've never gone through practices as demanding as these.

Positionless basketball

The Illini play Indiana State today in a "secret" scrimmage. Underwood indicated this past week that Peoria freshman Da'Monte Williams, who missed last season due to knee surgery, has surprisingly earned a starting berth after impressing with his rebounding and defense.

Don't ask about positions. Underwood believes in positionless basketball, and favors quickness over size. You might see guards Williams, Smith, Te'Jon Lucas and Mark Alstork on the court at the same time. Or maybe Kipper Nichols, Trent Frazier or Aaron Jordan.

"We've successfully defended the post with 6-5 players in the past," said Underwood, referring to Oklahoma State last season and Stephen F. Austin previously.

At the same time, he brought power forwards Leron Black (6-7) and Michael Finke (6-11) to Thursday's Big Ten media event in New York City, a sure indication that those rangy juniors rank high in his estimation.

With this aggressive Underwood style, depth will be the big concern. No one is going to play 35 minutes, not with the level of defensive intensity he demands.

If the Illini play "without a center," it'll be a new experience for a program that temporarily banked on East St.Louis standout Jeremiah Tilmon, who committed but switched to Missouri in May. Since 2000, the Illini have featured a steady list of natural centers: Marcus Griffin, Robert Archibald, James Augustine, Shaun Pruitt, Mike Tisdale, Meyers Leonard, Nnanna Egwu and Maverick Morgan, not to mention backup transfers Dominique Keller, Nick Smith, Jack Ingram, Sam McLaurin and Mike Thorne.

Defensive intensity

In analyzing what to expect, a look back at 2016-17 is appropriate.

Oklahoma State featured a blinding playmaker in erstwhile UI prospect Juwan Evans, a 23-point scorer whose rejection of Illinois played a part in John Groce's ultimate ouster. Two exceptional three-point shooters, Jeffrey Carroll and Phil Forte, profited from Evans' penetrating skills last season.

The Cowboys came out fast against weak competition, going 10-2 with losses to North Carolina (107-75) and Maryland (71-70). A resounding 93-76 defeat of Wichita State was impressive, but the Cowboys lost their Big 12 opener to West Virginia, 92-75, and fell into a six-game skid. At that point, Oklahoma State had lost 24 of 28 conference games.

"Our defense was terrible," said Underwood. "We stayed up late and made some necessary changes."

Voila! The Cowboys began winning big, rattling off 10 of 11 that included two defeats of Oklahoma, an 80-68 rout of Weber's K-State quintet and an 82-75 conquest of high-ranked West Virginia. That got them into the NCAA tournament where Michigan drained a school record 16 treys in a 92-91 thriller, concluding a season in which the Cowboys ranked No. 1 in offensive efficiency and high in backboard tenacity ... but not so high defensively.

Where the Illini stand

Where do Underwood's Illini fit in the Big Ten? I'm told they're better than the Cowboys defensively. But offense is a worry.

The conference media places them 12th among 14 teams. Nearly all the nation's evaluators have them in the bottom four — down around the weakened Indiana and Ohio State programs — a fact that makes Underwood's expressed goal of reaching the NCAA tournament a long-shot quest.

In the upper division, it looks like a six- or seven-way battle for No. 2. Michigan State is alone as a national title contender with Big Ten preseason Player of the Year Miles Bridges declining the NBA draft, 6-11 Jaren Jackson enrolling as the Big Ten's top rookie, and the lineup otherwise bubbling with young talent and oversized backups.

Here's a stat: With Caleb Swanigan leaving Purdue, IU's Thomas Bryant turning pro and Jalen Coleman-Lands moving from Illinois to DePaul, there isn't a remaining Big Ten player who was ranked among the Top 50 of preps in 2015.

Another stat: Of the current sophomores, four of the seven players ranked in the Top 50 in 2016 are in the MSU starting lineup — Bridges, center Nick Ward, point Cassius Winston and wing Joshua Langford.

Look at the Big Ten

While Underwood is building from the ground floor, look at the jump others have on him.

— Defending Big Ten champion Purdue, minus only Swanigan, practiced and played eight official games (plus three others) in the World University Games in Taiwan, winning the silver medal.

— Penn State, which returns five starters, took advantage of 10 practices leading to off-season games in the Bahamas.

— Iowa, a dark horse that led the Big the Ten in scoring (while last in defense), had 12 returnees for extended practices and four games in Germany, Switzerland and Italy.

— Wisconsin dedicated weeks of preparation for two weeks in Australia and New Zealand where guard D'Mitrik Trice took charge of a new lineup featuring one returning starter, Ethan Happ.

Figuring out Michigan

If you think you have a handle on the Big Ten, explain Michigan.

This is the team that lost at Illinois 85-69 last January, and stood 4-6 in the Big Ten before hosting arch-rival Michigan State. The Wolverines rocked the Spartans, 86-57 (that was a 37-point turnaround) and, in a 14-game stretch, their only losses were at Minnesota in OT and at Northwestern 67-65 ... the latter called by coach Chris Collins "the most important game" in getting NU into its first NCAA tournament.

Not only did Michigan sweep through the Big Ten tournament, but the Wolverines downed Oklahoma State and Louisville — Rick Pitino's last game — in the NCAA tournament before losing a one-pointer to Oregon.

OK, now, prize forward D.J. Wilson turned pro and key seniors Zak Irvin and Derrick Walton graduated. So John Beilein is starting over with Berlin's 6-11 Moe Wagner (pronounced Vog-ner), Kentucky transfer Charles Matthews (St. Rita prep), Ohio grad transfer Jaaron Simmons (16 points, 7 assists), former Williams College transfer Duncan Robinson (UM's sixth man last year) and the senior with the longest name, Muhammad Ali Abdur-Rahkman.

I'm confused. Let's hope the playing of games will clarify some of this. Nov. 10 can't come soon enough.

Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at ltate@news-gazette.com

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Moonpie wrote on October 24, 2017 at 2:10 pm

Hmmmm. Prehistoric Tate says he likes where this is headed--wherever that is, but admits that the Big Dance is a longshot. Might be this thing he likes is headed nowhere. No one knows. Including Mr. Tate.

But at least we are free of Coach Grimace. That's a start.

And it's too soon yet for Tate to offer an alibi for The Latest Coaching Installment.

MasterOfTheObvious wrote on November 04, 2017 at 10:11 pm

0-1.  Loss to Eastern Illinois.  

Love where this team is headed.