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CHAMPAIGN — Multiple point guards on the court together was a primary staple of the Illinois men’s basketball offense the past few seasons.

It was a roster-driven option coach Brad Underwood could readily turn to throughout the course of games mostly for a single reason.

Underwood had a luxury few teams could boast that made playing several smaller guards feasible. Kofi Cockburn’s presence in the middle — a 7-foot, 285-pound, double-digit rebound-grabbing presence — made going small in the backcourt possible.

It was a successful combination. Illinois won 68 games, a Big Ten tournament title and a Big Ten regular-season title with Cockburn regularly surrounded by multiple smaller guards. Now he’s gone, and Illinois has to pivot.

Underwood will do so, however, in a direction that he favors. The sixth-year Illinois coach has illustrated this in how he’s recruited and built his roster the past two seasons. Big wings — long, athletic wings — are a preference, and the Illini will have quite the collection for the 2022-23 season with Texas Tech transfer Terrence Shannon Jr. (6-6, 215), sophomore returnees RJ Melendez (6-7, 205) and Luke Goode (6-7, 200) and incoming freshman Ty Rodgers (6-6, 200).

“There’s a great advantage in big wings,” Underwood said. “We’ve been able to play a little bit smaller. We’ve gotten away with that with Kofi. I look back at my Stephen F. Austin teams and Oklahoma State team, and we had big wings. They were great rebounders and very versatile. If you’re not going to have 7-foot, 300 in the middle, you better figure out how to rebound and do some things.

“It’s been a two-year process — literally a three-year process going back to (Jacob Grandison) and (Austin Hutcherson) and that class and obviously this past year making sure we’re more athletic there. The more athletic you are, the more versatile you can be.”

Parsing through the Oklahoma State roster in Underwood’s lone season as coach during the 2016-17 season and his three Stephen F. Austin teams reveals big wings were among his best players. Jeffrey Carroll (6-6, 205) gave the Cowboys a 1-2 punch with point guard Jawun Evans, and the Lumberjacks were wing-led with guys like Jacob Parker and Thomas Walkup.

The 2022-23 Illini could wind up in a similar place. Shannon arrives after three seasons at Texas Tech and could wind up with a primary offensive role. Melendez has his sights set on a breakout sophomore season like Wisconsin’s Johnny Davis and Iowa’s Keegan Murray had this past winter. In essence, the more wings for Underwood, the merrier.

“I wouldn’t be shocked if I play five wings,” Underwood said. “Why not? Watch Golden State. No centers in that league now unless you’re Joel Embiid or whoever. There’s very few. It’s five wings and get big wings and let’s go. I don’t know. We could throw a lot of different lineups out there.”

How Illinois’ lineups actually shake out in 2022-23 and just how many wings Underwood might play at one time is still to be determined. That’s a summer project once Shannon and the four incoming freshmen get on campus. That Illinois is also in the market for another frontcourt piece and potentially another lead guard could shift possible lineups and rotations, too.

“I’m a very visual guy,” Underwood said. “I can plan a lot of things, but until I actually see them on the court and gelling together and working together I often have something in mind and I change it. I’m studying a lot of film of some things I think I like with this group. … I can visualize it all I want. Until I actually see them on the court, we’ll never know.”

Underwood is spending some of his offseason time watching film. Looking back at his previous teams, how they were constructed and what worked best in terms of style and scheme.

It’s a bit of a solo project at the moment. He’ll loop in his assistant coaches this summer when it’s time to turn concept into reality.

“We’ve talked about how we want to play so they know what they’re looking for, but the sheer Xs and Os of it, I don’t know yet,” Underwood said. “I’m looking at a lot of things. I’m more concerned right now with what we’re doing defensively than offensively and how those changes might benefit us. I’ve gone back to things I liked in 2010, 2013 and watching clips of different teams and styles and things I’ve done. You try to pair your current team and roster right now with something you’ve liked over the years and see if it fits and works.”

Big wings will aid in the development of a new-look Illinois defense without Cockburn as an anchor in the post. Officially adding Shannon this week only enhances the Illini’s options.

“The versatility that brings for us — what we do on the defensive side — really excites me,” Underwood said. “All these guys can guard multiple positions. TJ, with his physicality and his understanding, he’s been a part of elite defensive teams that really is a great fit for us.”

Scott Richey is a reporter covering college basketball at The News-Gazette. His email is srichey@news-gazette.com, and you can follow him on Twitter (@srrichey).

College/Prep Sports Reporter

Scott Richey is a reporter covering college basketball at The News-Gazette. His email is srichey@news-gazette.com, and you can follow him on Twitter (@srrichey).

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