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Stick to Your Guns, Coach

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Coach Underwood shouldn’t adapt for this season, but be steadfast for the future

NCAA Basketball: Ohio State at Illinois Quinn Harris-USA TODAY Sports

I graduated from the University of Illinois in 2006, and covered Illinois from the stocked Bill Self cupboard through Bruce Weber’s coordination of its dynamite pieces. For those old enough to remember, it was a sight to behold.

After I graduated, I watched as Bruce Weber altered his core beliefs, failing to recruit the blue-chip pieces this program demanded with an iron fist. Eventually, and damning enough to get him fired, he failed to recruit the right kids to fit his system.

In all the years that Bruce Weber recruited to Illinois, it might be argued that Chester Frazier was the only one that truly fit what he wanted to do schematically and culturally. An unheralded recruit with toughness who excelled at the little things, and cared naught for the college lifestyle besides preparing for basketball.

I still credit Bruce for destroying Illinois Basketball as I knew it, but he’s gone to Kansas State, stripped that program of all its Bob Huggins, Frank Martin-ness, and then rebuilt it in his image based on his failures at Illinois. They’re coming off an Elite 8 season and currently ranked.

I go through all that unpleasantness to say that I want Brad Underwood to build the Illinois program however he wants to, and not to change his offense or defense to match the current players or expectations. I don’t care if Illinois wins another game this year, as long as the players here are developed to better understand the intricacies of his unique motion offense and pressure defense. I see Ayo Dosunmu and Alan Griffin’s quickness and length, and know once they understand the defensive philosophy and how to guard, that this defense will be even more adept at causing havoc. I don’t want to see them stripped of these learning experiences, and sitting back in some pack-line, just for a couple possible wins. That’s short-sighted, and Illinois fans have seen too many shortcuts not work.

It’s obvious that the current roster is either ill-equipped to play his tempo or hit his quick developing passes towards the rim, and is too young to trust themselves in either scenario. But, when Illinois hired Brad Underwood, I believed in his coaching chops from his domination at Stephen F. Austin, and his revamp of Oklahoma State. I don’t think he’s lost his ability to outfox his opponent; I think he’s righting Weber’s Illini wrongs and sticking to his system, even if it hurts in the win column.

On Wednesday against Ohio State, there were flashes of the offense working through the pinch post and Giorgi or Kipper that looked great, guards working off movement and counters to find open lanes to the rim or cause the defense to over-rotate and leave shooters wide open in the corner after a couple dribble explorations through the lane. Those moments weren’t frequent enough to beat a better and well-coached opponent, but you have to remind yourself that most of these guys — all but four — are playing in the first 10 games of their careers with this system. It’s an awful feeling losing this often, especially when you’ve seen Illinois at its peak, but don’t adapt for my sake. I’ll keep moaning on twitter, and I hope my anguish sparks no change.

If Underwood is wrong, and his systems don’t help Illinois turn around what’s likely to be one of the worst seasons in history, then I hope Underwood goes down with what he believes in. We’ve seen what happens when coaches are too fragile to implement their system and recruit to their needs, and we’ve seen what happens when they are. There are jokers like John Groce who don’t have a chance either way, and there are Webers who will succeed with room to grow. Don’t bend to the will of the program, or outside influences, and end up with Weberian levels of bubble mediocrity.

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