'We're still grinding through'

'We're still grinding through'

ROSEMONT — A work in progress.

That's Illinois in the first season under new coach Brad Underwood with Big Ten play now underway after Friday night's 72-68 loss to Northwestern.

And Underwood — familiar with starting fresh with a new team having done so in 2013-14 at Stephen F. Austin and last season at Oklahoma State — is seeing the Illini make progress.

Underwood didn't have any goals or landmarks he wanted Illinois to hit by its eighth game — almost the one-month mark.

His previous experiences have taught him every team learns and progresses at its own pace.

"Next year we'll move quicker because it's year two," Underwood said. "This year's about laying a foundation and teaching the fundamentals. Do I wish we had a few more things in? Absolutely, but there's a point of giving them too much and then not doing anything very well. I don't want to do that. I want to get good at our base stuff, our foundation stuff."

What came easily during, for example, his final season at Stephen F. Austin, is still taking some work through eight games at Illinois.

It's what he expected.

"Year three when I was at Stephen F., we flew through some things pretty quick," Underwood said. "Scouting reports were a breeze. We're still grinding through all that stuff here, but we're making progress."

* * * 

Making progress by not being so prone to foul is one area of focus for Illinois.

Heading into Friday's game with the Wildcats, the Illini ranked 326th of 351 Division I teams having been whistled for 167 fouls in seven games.

Part of Illinois' foul trouble has been a switch to Underwood's defense. It's predicated on getting ball pressure and denying passes. Both aspects require taking an aggressive tact.

Finding a balance is key.

"I know I've been doing a poor job of fouling early," sophomore guard Te'Jon Lucas said. "We're trying to stay away from those things. We focus a lot on staying aggressive, but being intelligent doing it. We want to play aggressive — we want to pressure the ball — but we've got to do it hard and smart and do it without fouling. That goes for all positions."

* * * 

The NCAA has made several rules changes in the past few years to increase freedom of movement for offensive players.

One change this season is on the offensive end, requiring a "legal screener" to set their stance so their feet are not wider than shoulders.

Illinois has been whistled for a number of illegal screens through the first month of the season.

"They've always been finding rules to change," junior guard Aaron Jordan said. "We've just got to adapt to that, know how they're calling it and adjust ourselves."

* * * 

One Illini who has been able to stay on the court better than he has done in the past is Leron Black. The redshirt junior forward has fouled out just once (against DePaul) and rarely has had to sit with early foul trouble. His minutes have seen a positive spike because of it.

"Maybe we traded places or something," fellow redshirt junior forward Michael Finke joked after he struggled with foul trouble in Tuesday's loss to Wake Forest. "(Black) not picking up fouls is big for us. As long as he's not fouling on the court, that helps us be in position to win."

* * * 

As Illinois gets more comfortable running Underwood's offensive system, more teams are going to throw zone defenses at the Illini as a counter.

Straight man-to-man defenses can struggle in stopping Underwood's spread offense when it's run effectively because of the movement, reads and counters built into every action.

Being just as aggressive against a zone defense as a man-to-man, Lucas said, is important.

"We're going to face a lot of zone, so we've got to get used to it," the 6-foot point guard said. "Hitting the short corners. Hitting the high post. Hitting those spots. That's how you break down a zone.

"We have to attack the paint. If the ball touches the paint and then you kick it out to a three, those are the best threes. If you attack the paint, most of the time good things happen."

* * * 

Underwood used the same starting lineup Friday against Northwestern — Lucas, Mark Smith, Mark Alstork, Black and Finke — that has taken the floor for tipoff in every game this season for the Illini.

That leaves double-digit scorers like Jordan and Kipper Nichols on the bench.

Even so, Underwood isn't too concerned about who starts. At all.

"I never worry about putting my best lineup on the court to start a game," he said. "It's the most overrated thing in the history of college basketball — or basketball. I could care less who starts."

Underwood is, however, focused on how productive his bench can be. It's more about minutes, which are balanced among the nine players in the Illini rotation, and which players are comfortable in which roles.

"I don't give two cents about who starts a game," Underwood said. "I'm not going to put five guys that don't deserve it out there, but I don't think like that."

* * * 

Illinois knew Tuesday's game at Wake Forest could put some adversity in its path after six straight wins at home. An 80-73 loss to the Demon Deacons riddled by 19 turnovers and 24 fouls proved the Illini right. How the team, loaded with newcomers and veterans filling new roles, responded would be key.

"There were some guys that were hurt in the locker room (at Wake Forest)," Underwood said. "I like that. That means we're invested in each other and we're invested in the cost of what it takes to win.

"I say this all the time — winning is really, really hard. It takes a lot of guys pulling in the same direction to win. We're continuing to improve there. I loved our practice (Wednesday) and our commitment to the practice."

Underwood said that commitment has been constant for the Illini.

"The one thing that keeps giving me really good feel-good moments is with this team, we're not having to beg them and do extra work," he said. "We're not having to beg them to come in and watch film. This team is very much committed not to just making themselves better, but making our team better."

* * * 

Several Illinois recruiting targets are playing in the Chicago Elite Classic this weekend.

Class of 2020 Fenwick standout point guard D.J. Steward squared off against Oak Park-River Forest late Friday night.

More Illini targets are on the schedule today at the UIC Pavilion, starting with 2018 signee Ayo Dosunmu. The five-star Morgan Park point guard will lead the defending Class 3A state champion Mustangs against Champaign Central at 4:30 p.m.

Immediately following is a game between Sunrise Christian Academy (Kan.) and La Lumiere School (Ind.), which pits 2019 wing Malik Hall against 2019 big man Isaiah Stewart, respectively.

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Moonpie wrote on December 02, 2017 at 2:12 pm

The Latest Coaching Installment is already tossing his new players under the bus. Really classy. Tatelike.