CHAMPAIGN — Brad Underwood doesn’t have as many sure-fire answers relating to his squad as he’s had in previous falls, but he’s fired up for the search to find them in the weeks and months ahead.
Known commodities in the form of All-Americans, veteran role players and an established identity led Illinois to being ranked No. 8 and No. 11 in the country in the preseason AP poll the last two years. Heading into this season, there’s much more to figure out on the fly.
This Illini team is unquestionably stacked with talent. Illinois pulled in two of the best transfers in college basketball Terrence Shannon Jr. oath Matthew Mayer. Meanwhile, Underwood also welcomed in his highest-ranked recruiting class since being in Champaign. And while there aren’t many returners from last year’s roster, Coleman Hawkins is a prime breakout candidate in the Big Ten and RJ Melendez also has that potential.
The big test for Underwood is to take a big box of interchangeable puzzle pieces and find the best ways to fit them together. With the in-season practice calendar beginning on Monday, he and his staff will be given 20 hours a week to figure that out leading up to the season-opener on Nov. 7.
“It’s going to be fun, and yet, challenging to continually figure out all of the pieces of this puzzle,” Underwood said on Monday. “And what I mean by that is you have some wing players who are very, very gifted and finding out their strengths and finding out what they can do with those strengths is gonna be fun. We’ve looked at Terrence Shannon playing some points with some really big lineups in terms of positional size.
“We’ve got a lot of options. It’s the strength of this team. And yet, we’ve got to continue to grow that and build on that diversity on the offensive side. Defensively, I think this can be one of the best defensive teams we’ve had.”
Experimentation is the name of the game at this point in the process. Underwood said that he is changing lineup combinations on a daily basis, while his staff takes an in-depth look at the offensive and defensive efficiency ratings of each grouping.
Not only is Underwood tinkering with which spots he’s putting players in, he’s also trying out different schemes and ways to get guys shots. Maybe it’s putting different guys in ball screens. Maybe it’s bringing back the spread offense on occasion. Maybe it’s throwing in a few new sets on the playing card.
“I knew last year, Kofi was getting the ball a lot and everybody else knew that. And we knew where we were getting Trent shots. The fun part about this is we’re still working through that. We’ve still got to figure all of that out,” Underwood said. “I enjoy that. To me, that’s the fun of my job. And this group is versatile. There’s a lot to play with there.”
That said, it’s still a learning process for coaches and players alike.
“We’re still trying to figure out and get a grasp of Terrence Shannon‘s game,” Underwood said. “Okay, can he score in the post?” Is he this or that? Where is Matt comfortable? Where do we get RJ’s opportunities at? As chemistry builds and roles become defined, it kind of works itself out in a lot of ways.”
On the other side of it, the players are now getting a heavy dose of the scheme. That’s not being thrown on them all of a sudden. Underwood said that his staff invested more time in teaching concepts early in the fall semester than they have in years past. That said, there were some limitations with only eight hours of on-court instruction per week.
“When you can only go eight hours, it’s really hard to string anything together,” Underwood said.
Now, it’s full speed ahead. The combination of many newcomers and a new style of play at both ends will produce some bumps in the road. However, with respect to the success Illinois enjoyed in recent seasons, the newness seemed to reenergize Underwood.
“With veterans a lot of times, I’m gonna use the word stale. It’s probably not the right word. They knew everything. Trent Frazier could come run my practice and he knew what I was gonna say before I said it,” Underwood said. “This group has a young energy and eagerness about ’em that is exciting. And they really want to learn. They all have personalities that set them up to be excited to learn and they want to be told what to do. I’ve really enjoyed that.”
Underwood also took great pleasure out of the fact that there was a group of players sitting in the film room with coaches when he ventured across the street for his press conference. Compared to years ago, there will probably need to be longer film sessions and more patience with growing pains.
The potential payoff could make it all worthwhile, though. This appears to be a hungry, high-upside team with a coach who is buzzing off the young energy on the court and the creative juices flowing through his head.