CHAMPAIGN — Stephen Gentry got to the point immediately in the Zoom clinic he hosted earlier this month highlighting the end of Illinois’ 71-70 victory at Wisconsin on Jan. 8. The point of the clinic is to detail what the Illini staff was thinking when it came to play calls, situations and substitutions.
The word of warning, per se, from Gentry is that he’s “probably going to be overly technical” in his breakdown. Approximately 40 minutes later, the Illinois assistant coach had taken his Zoom viewers through the final 3 1/2 minutes of that win against the Badgers.
That included dropping choice tidbits like the Illini scoring 17 of their 71 points on the same play featuring a dribble handoff between two guards followed by a ball screen and simultaneous back screen to free up a shooter. That play was “Laker,” and Gentry made sure to mention that both Maryland and Northwestern stole that action later in Big Ten play because of how successful Illinois ran it against Wisconsin.
Gentry has made it a point in the past three months to schedule as many clinics — all on Zoom because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic — as possible. He participates in clinics run by other coaches, too. It’s something the entire Illinois coaching staff has done during the extended offseason to stay fresh and keep learning.
“I wanted to set up as many clinics as I possibly could to keep my teaching skills sharp,” Gentry said. “I knew this was going to be a long offseason. That way once we’re back on the court and starting to put in our system, that’s going to keep me sharp and help install our stuff. I was pretty adamant about that.
“It’s been unique and forced, at least me, to change my teaching style. I’m obviously verbalizing most of what I’m trying to explain instead of diagramming or being out on a court. … I was even doing a private clinic for the UNC-Greensboro staff and Wes Miller. Not having the ability to be out on the court and actually show a coverage, I had to do makeshift diagrams. It’s definitely different, but you’ve just got to make do.”
Gentry was able to share his screen with other participants in his Zoom breaking down the Wisconsin game. That allowed him to slow the game film down, rewind or repeat a play as often as possible. In a normal clinic situation, Gentry would be coaching on the court and have players to run through plays like “Laker.” The Zoom version allows other coaches to see it in action with the players who ran it successfully in the first place.
Sharing game film has been an apt replacement.
“I’m a big film guy anyway,” Gentry said. “Having film clipped up and prepared to reinforce something we’re teaching. Just kind of incorporating technology that way. Verbalizing, explaining it and then here’s a couple clips of it. Any time you can incorporate technology into that process it certainly helps.”
Simply hosting or participating in Zoom coaching clinics the past three months isn’t just unique in itself. Having the time do so is as well. Sometimes the Illinois coaches even show up on the same Zoom clinic — without knowing the other will be there.
“Gent and I have been on a bunch of Zooms,” Illinois assistant coach Orlando Antigua said. “I realize he’s on, and I’m on with a bunch of these European coaches. … Rarely do we have the time with the recruiting calendar and all the demands to sit down and add to our basketball education. To be able to do that now has been beneficial for getting better in your craft.”
Clinics can also yield insight into different schemes or systems. The concepts Illinois coach Brad Underwood and his staff used at Oklahoma State to build the No. 1 offense in the country? Gentry found them at a clinic in Las Vegas.
“I heard Mike D’Antoni speak out there,” Gentry said about the former coach of the seven-seconds-or-less Phoenix Suns, who’s now coach of the three-point bombing Houston Rockets.
“A lot of the transition concepts we used that year at Oklahoma State — obviously we tweaked them and made them our own — they came from a clinic,” Gentry continued. “I’ve always enjoyed going to clinics to see different styles, to see different team techniques. I feel like I always pick up on a better way of explaining something or a better terminology on a concept. I feel like I always take something away from each clinic I go to.”
The Illinois coaching staff is partially taking its cue on clinic participation from Underwood. Camps and clinics, whether as a participant and speaker or spectator, have always been important to Underwood and his ongoing basketball education. Just as important for Underwood in the past several months have been the informal Zooms with other coaches.
“We all started out in this when the pandemic hit and I was really eager to talk to coaches and have 1-on-1s,” Underwood said. “We did some of those things, and then we got into Zooms with 15-20 guys and doing it on a Friday night or in the afternoon and being able to talk just about anything and or any topic related to basketball. They were much more informal, but they were good.”
Those informal Zooms aren’t much different than what college coaches do on the road when they’re recruiting. Sitting side by side in a gym for an entire day provides ample time to talk basketball. Underwood’s circle has simply expanded since sports shut down in early March.
“Now, we got involved with Euroleague guys,” he said. “We got involved with NBA coaches. We got involved with Division III coaches. You don’t see those people — sometimes never. That was the beauty of this. We always talk basketball on the road recruiting. Now, it was a different group. That’s really fun to get different perspectives from the different levels and just connect with different people.”