With the departure of Malcolm Hill, Maverick Morgan, and many others this offseason, Coach Brad Underwood had quite the task ahead of him. In no aspect of the game were the Illini a juggernaut – offensively, defensively, nada, nothing. Coming from Oklahoma State, he turned a 12-20 team to a 20-13 one and coached an offense that ranked first in the nation in efficiency. With just five scholarship players returning, it was unsure who was going to lead the team this season.
Through the first four games, we can see Brad Underwood’s style already paying dividends. During the John Groce era, we got familiar with stagnant offense and even more dismal defense. This is not something that suits well with the Illini fans, or Underwood himself. When the Illini lead decreased from 20 to 15 against Marshall, Coach Underwood took a timeout to chew out the team about their effort. Mediocrity is not something he is going to settle for. This type of discipline is exactly what a young, inexperienced team needs. It’s this type of accountability that he holds players to which will instill a winning culture back into the program.
On the offensive side, the Illini ranked 214th out of 351 teams in terms of points per game at 71.7. After the first four games, the Illini are sitting at 88 points a game. Quite an impressive number for a team this young and one that’s only shooting 27.5 percent from the three-point line. The players are getting good shots around the rim and getting to the free throw line. This seems to be an emphasis for Brad Underwood to start the season. Yes, the outside shot will fall, and it will need to if Illinois hopes to continue their success into Big Ten play.
Individually, Leron Black has been OUTSTANDING so far for the Illini. In limited minutes, he’s averaging 15.5 points and six rebounds a game, and he is also shooting almost 86 percent from the line. We all had high hopes for the junior this season, but I think he’s surpassed everyone’s expectations so far. Kipper Nichols, Mark Smith, and Aaron Jordan are also having impressive starts in the new season.
Defensively, we’ve seen a complete 180 in the intensity. The Underwood tenure is going to be one of tough, in-your-face pressure. On-ball defense has been superb to this point. Guys are up in passing lanes and forcing turnovers at the rate of almost 20 a game. As a spectator, this kind of defense is exciting to watch. Deflected passes, blocked shots, and turnovers that lead to fast break dunks can really get the crowd into it.
Mark Alstork, the guy whose defensive abilities were questioned entering the season, has been a spark for the Illini, along with Kipper Nichols, and Aaron Jordan. The trio have combined for 10 steals and six blocks on the year.
Coach Underwood and his system have been key to the 4-0 start the Illini are off to. No one knew quite what to expect going in to this season, but the team is slowly putting together the pieces to its puzzle. It’s not where he wants it be quite yet, but Underwood’s style is a significant improvement from what we have become accustomed to.