2017 began a new era of Illinois Men’s Basketball. Coming off his only season with Oklahoma State where he led the Cowboys to the NCAA Tournament, Brad Underwood signed a long term deal to build the University of Illinois Basketball program back to the prominent state it was once in.
Underwood did not have the luxury of inheriting a roster beaming with talent like he did with Oklahoma State, but he was able to inherit a very talented freshman in Trent Frazier. Throughout the preseason and the season alike, Illinois fans were shown a coaching style that they had not seen in eons. A coach that rode his players hard and coached until the final whistle, whether a win or a loss.
With previous regimes in Champaign, fans were given a coaches with styles that were a bit bland and vanilla. Groce was the type of coach who wanted players to be friends with him. Weber was the type of coach that pushed for a slow tempo. Underwood is the complete opposite in every facet — up-tempo offense and defense and fire on the sideline, with even more intensity during practices.
One practice in particular resonated with fans. During an early preseason practice, Underwood stated “We have a big, big complex with losing…Who am I going to get to lead this team? None of you guys want conflict. Part of being a leader is you have to be combative and you have to have conflict.” That was the kind of coach Illinois was getting. A coach that looks for little coaching moments no matter what is going on around him.
Much has been made of close losses in recapping the 2017-18 season. Of Illinois’ 18 total losses, 13 came by 10 points or less. That is 13 losses that, in all reality, could have been wins. Had this team won half of those games, the Illini would have been sitting at 20-12 on the season with a legitimate chance to go to the NCAA Tournament.
Comparatively speaking, this Illinois squad was not exactly a beauty for Coach Underwood to inherit. Due to graduation, transfers, and players seeking a release from their letter of intent, the makeup of the Illini was relatively unknown coming in to the season. After a few games, the style of play and system Brad Underwood was looking to implement was taking picture.
The smash-mouth style of defense that Underwood wanted to run was not something that this team was known for or ever tried to run in the past. The defense under John Grove rarely ever crossed the half court line. With Underwood, the press was on almost every play, which helped Illinois jump from #200 nationally in turnovers forced per game to #5. That is an amazing jump for a team to make in one short offseason.
Now, the style of play Underwood has been trying to implement in his first season is not without its flaws. Far too often we have seen the press get beat under the rim and in the paint. When two guys would collapse on the ball handler, it would inevitably leave someone on the opposition open and it typically left the lane weakly guarded. However, this is something the Illini improved on as the year progressed and should improve on as this offseason progresses.
The other glaring issue with the system Underwood tried to run was the high-tempo offense. The system relies on having a go-to scorer. Oklahoma State had Jawun Evans and Jeffery Carroll. Stephen F. Austin had Thomas Walkup. Once Underwood can remediate this issue and find that scorer that can score at will — I believe a sophomore Frazier and young Ayo Dosunmu can be that— the offense Underwood wants to see in Champaign will be there, but right now, it is still a work in progress.
The big mark people are going to put on Underwood is the record. Many fans only see wins and losses. Last season — the last under John Groce — the Illini went 18-14 through the Big Ten Tournament and received a bid to the NIT Tournament. This season, the Illini flipped the script, going 14-18. So what is with the four game drop? Who takes the blame?
In my opinion, you can chalk this season up to a good coach with a bad team. Not all parts are bad. The parts that remain after this season are a good foundation. The parts coming in next season will help to build that foundation up. However, the loss of Malcolm Hill, Maverick Morgan, and Tracy Abrams was felt throughout this season. The Illini lacked a true leader until Trent Frazier emerged as such later in the season.
Aside from the obvious losses the Illini endured not only to graduation but to decommitments and transfers, Underwood and his staff of talented assistants are in the process of implementing a completely new system for the Illini. This is far an away a different style of play than anything these student-athletes have had to run. You can expect to see growing pains when you are starting from scratch with a program, which is basically what Underwood had to do this season.
How do you rate a coach who inherited a young roster that needed work and a recruiting class that changed rapidly following the change of leadership for the Illini? Underwood inherited a mess and while there were some bleak games (@Wisconsin, vs. Penn State) there were some legitimately exciting games. The Bragging Rights game was thought to be a game that would turn around the Illini’s season — it didn’t — the close loss to Michigan State was poised to be a game that you could look to as say “That’s when things turned around” (it wasn’t).
While the Brad Underwood’s first season was not what fans may have hoped for, it was what should have been expected. Yes, Underwood had won everywhere he coached — prior to this season, he had never missed the NCAA Tournament — but fans may have expected far too much out of a coach that had a lot of work ahead of him. As a fan, I know I did. Looking back on this season, there are positives and negatives, but I believe the positive spots from this season are things Illinois can build on for the future.
Coach Brad Underwood has a bright future ahead of him in Champaign. The fans of Illinois Basketball have a bright future ahead of them. Chalk this season up to rebuilding and let’s look to the future for hope.
Austin Jabs is an IT Professional, youth worker with his local church, and a writer for The Champaign Room. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram for terrible takes and pictures of his family and dogs.