Happy Sunday, Illini Nation!
After completing another undefeated week in conference play, handing Ohio State and Wisconsin a pair of double-digit defeats, it has finally become prudent to analyze how Brad Underwood and his basketball team have empathically turned their season around in Big Ten play.
As the title of this column mildly suggests, changes made by Underwood himself and buy-in from the players at large are the whys behind the success.
Illinois was dismantled by Northwestern in “Chicago” to start Big Ten play at 0-3, despite being selected to finish in second place (behind Indiana) in the preseason poll. That loss, effort and exposition forced Underwood and his staff to take a hard, long look at going about facilitating change and consistency.
Decision: change the defense, change the offense, change the lineup and change the temperature of the culture.
Before we go into the systemic changes that have bred success, I have to acknowledge Matthew Mayer and his All-American level performance on the road in Madison on Saturday.
This wasn’t a change, but an in-game adjustment to foul trouble and ineffectiveness of TSJ.
It’s rare that opposing head coaches in the Big Ten wholeheartedly agree on a specific matchup. Underwood said that he “loved the matchup” between Mayer and Essegian. Wisconsin head man Greg Gard said “I didn’t like it,” adjusting his color and brandishing a small smile. One of the Wisco reporters even suggested “doubling Mayer.” Gard laughed and asked how that was even possible. It is not.
Mayer was uncharacteristically overtly aggressive the entirety of the game, and once he started cooking, the table was set and he brought a six-course meal out of the kitchen for the Kohl Center to look at in disgust.
Mayer was 9-of-19 on the game — including 5-of-11 from three — and added six rebounds, a block and zero turnovers. This rivals the Texas victory for the game of the year.
The rest of the roster was 1-of-9 from three, including RJ Melendez going 0-for-4 yet again. Melendez is now 5 for his last 36 from behind the arc, bad for 13.8%. Underwood needs to adjust again and put the sets for RJ in his pocket, where they belong.
Melendez did do this, though. Colby obviously loved it.
Colby later in the evening, “God, that Melendez dunk was sick. I can’t stop thinking about it.” Me too babe. Me too. https://t.co/dTF6VmswsO— Benjamin (@illinidmd7) January 29, 2023
Here’s a breakdown of the 1’s and 2’s of the sixth straight victory over Wisconsin.
Changing the defense.
The original gameplan was to “switch everything.” You don’t have to be a basketball savant to understand this concept. Every time there is a screen, it gets switched. Simple concept to grasp, difficult concept to achieve, particularly when you insert Dain Dainja into the lineup and it became “switch everything, 80% of the time.” Dainja plays drop coverage and doesn’t switch.
Ineffectiveness: SEE last defensive possession against Maryland. It was too complex.
Effectiveness of the switch from switch everything to switching when necessary is easy to see. The Illini are 6-1 since the wholesale changes were initiated. KenPom DER (Defensive Efficiency Rating) is now a robust 17th in the country.
Coleman Hawkins is the No. 1 defensive option for Illinois. Without having to calculate what to do based on personnel, Hawkins concentrates on his assignment, and his assignment alone. Adding nine boards with no turnovers doesn’t hurt, either.
Changing the offense.
No more five out. Bring on the spread, and what I’d refer to as Hot Hand Huddle (Triple H). This newer concept of running plays that work for the guy that is hot makes total sense. It seems like it is unique to Mayer, because he is vocal about the concept.
Illinois did it in Madison in the first half to Dainja, when the rest of the team was already seated and buckled on the Struggle Bus. Burn the tape of that first 20 minutes.
This particular team will never be a great team on offense, from an efficiency perspective, for one simple reason. They can’t make open shots from behind the arc, and they try to do it too much. Shoot more from inside the arc and attack the hoop, dammit!
On the season: 32.5% from three, good for 250th in the country. From Two: 55.3% (23rd)
In Big Ten play: 30.9% from three, good for 12th. From Two: 51.7% (#1)
This is the next iteration of change for the Illini offensively.
Changing the lineup.
BU clearly reads my Sunday columns. Hey, Brad! Hope your Sunday is going awesome.
Since freshman Jayden Epps has been inserted into the lineup, post-my column, here is his stat line. 13.5 ppg, 2 assist, 2 turns and 2 boards. His biggest stat line: EXPERIENCE.
This adds to the consistency at the beginning of the game, and half. The more tick Epps gets, the better he will be.
Fellow freshman Ty Rodgers has also got more burn the last two contests. This is also a positive for next season, and beyond.
Changing the culture temperature.
For lack of a better term, Underwood went...ballistic during several contests during the game, and even in press conferences and practices.
He was tired of being a thermometer. He wanted to be the official thermostat.
He’s obvious not only a fan of TCR, but also David Bowie. I picture him in Ubben listening to CDs and popping in Bowie to get inspiration for all of the changes.
Underwood had warned that the team did not “have his fingerprints on it” when the social media wolves were at the door. He seemed confident it would turn. It has.
When asked about the team’s ability to withstand the second half Wisconsin run, Underwood was pleased with the question, and the response he was finally able to give.
“Coleman was electric in that huddle. Coleman eas a soothing voice. He and I are having a conversation, and everyone else is sitting there listening. I’m asking him what he likes. What do you feel? What do you like? Coleman is telling everyone what we’re going to see.” Underwood said.
The coach has been waiting on this day.
“He’s leading our team. That’s when we have a chance to become good.”
This is Illinois basketball.