There's two takeaways from this preview. First, I'm going to talk about the Illini offense, about how Brad Underwood has stuck with a triangle offense that's basically an NBA punchline today, and has tailored it for the college game. I'll point out that his, well, unconventional approach to recruiting (e.g., mostly signing a bunch of guys no one has ever heard of in the spring) has actually not been a disaster in roster construction. And for the first time in years, Illinois is actually not facing some massive roster overhaul, and the core product of underclassmen returns as a mix of sophomores, juniors, and a promising freshman or two that figures to improve considerably. Ayo Donsunmu is potentially headed for the NBA Draft lottery, and if/when he leaves, the cabinet will not be empty. All signs point upward, and sustainably so!
If you're the kind of Illini fan that likes to blow up mentions of any analyst that throws DISRESPEKT at your school, then maybe it's a good idea you stop reading there. Because I will be, once again, obliged to talk about the insane, outdated, ineffectual, and unsound in both theory in practice—Illinois defense.
You've been warned.
OK, about that offense. If you haven't watched a ton of triangle (rebranded as "spread" by Underwood), then it may look a little weird and complicated. But, here's a simple diagram:
(So I know Tevian Jones has been suspended and it sounds like it might be a longer term thing but these GIFs take time to make, man.)
The basic idea is that Illinois wants most of the paint area unoccupied most of the time. There are a couple of cuts to the hoop looking for easy layups, and then one post-up, but other than that it's perimeter threats. What I've shown above is the basic progression if nothing is open. However, if the 5 defender, for instance, cheats on the dribble hand-off, then the read is to take the ball directly to the hoop on the inside shoulder.
Indeed, what makes the offense so effective is that every pass, cut, and drive has a built-in read of the defense. Executed correctly, and defenses that cheat (which is roughly "every single defense") are punished.
Jordan Sperber (@hoopvision68) has broken down a lot of the actions you see out of this offense:
One thing to note, however, is that this offense is basically a 4-out, 1-in offense. There is some action with the 4 on the block while the 5 is at the free-throw line, but for the most part, the 4 in this offense should optimally be a stretch 4. While he was at Oklahoma State, Underwood's 4 position was manned mostly by Leyton Hammonds (36-105 on 3s that season) and Jeffrey Carroll (58-131). At Stephen F. Austin, he had plenty of stretch 4s as well.
This year, Underwood welcomes the sizable Kofi Cockburn (that's pronounced "Co-burn," because of course it is), a 6-10 center that tips the scales at nearly 300 pounds. And that 6-10 height might be a "barefoot, standing a couple inches in mud" measurement.
His game is decidedly "not stretch." This would be all well and good if returning sophomore Girogi Bezhanishvili could move to the 4, but his 5-30 line on 3s last season does not instill a ton of confidence that there's marksman potential. Additionally, as a freshman Bezhanishvili made 58 percent of his 2s, which was the highest mark of any Illini that attempted at least 200 two-pointers since Meyers Leonard shot 60 percent in 2012. Does it really make sense to move someone from a role they were very good at, to a role they have struggled mightily with?
Indeed, it's a hot topic. But why the angst? Surely, Cockburn is not the first talented freshman that might have to compete for minutes with a returning player. And Bezhanishvili fouled out of 8 games last year—Illinois could use the depth. So why does Underwood keep getting asked about putting the twin towers on the floor?
Well, that takes us to defense. First, an overview on what defense Illinois runs, again, here's Sperber.
I went on the record some time ago declaring this defense was a bad idea. I still hold that belief. Last year, I believed there was a good chance of an unmitigated disaster on that end of the floor. Well, that did not happen, in part because the surprising Bezhanishvili managed to block enough shots to be considered, and "was tall."
But by no means did the Illini put a good defense on the floor. It was (again) the 11th-best defense in Big Ten play, and 108th on an adjusted basis nationally. This will be Underwood's 4th high major season, and we're still waiting on the first campaign that puts his defense in the top-100.
My older posts on this topic, and the video above, outline a lot of the issues with the defense, but ultimately it's just a bad deal. Every scheme has trade-offs. Play zone, you're probably going to see a lot of 3s. Pack line, you won't see a lot of steals. Underwood's overplay is designed to force a lot of turnovers. And they do! They were 24th in the country last year in turnover percentage (1st in the Big Ten). That was actually down from the year prior, when they were 4th in the country (again, 1st in the Big Ten). In all but two of his six head coaching campaigns, Underwood's teams have finished in the top-10 in opponent turnover percentage.
And that, frankly, is the problem. Underwood's defenses are getting exactly what they want. There are little more opponent turnovers to be squeezed from this system. In other words, you cannot simply state that the players are not running the system properly. They are. It is functioning as designed. The design just sucks.
The deal is a bad one. In exchange for those extra 2-3 turnovers (and that's all it is, in a typical 65ish possession game), Underwood's teams give up easy 2s (54.3% in Big Ten play last year), foul a ton (43.9 FT Rate, last in conference), and generally stink on the boards, for good measure (13th in defensive rebounding percentage in Big Ten play the last two seasons). All for a couple of steals.
Sure, there are games like the Illini's home win over Michigan State last year, where the Spartans turned the ball over 24 times en route to a stunning upset. Take those away, maybe Illinois loses. Then again, MSU shot 63 percent on 2s, and rebounded 38 percent of its misses. A turnover that does not lead to an easy layup (which is most of them) is no different than a miss and a defensive rebound.
So, back to Cockburn. I think it's likely his size is being seen as a panacea for Illinois' defensive woes. He figures to at least rebound, and he might block some shots as well. But he's probably no Sagaba Konate, at least not next year. And, moreover, whatever he brings likely replaces, rather than augments what Bezhanishvili offers, because I do not see a lot of room for them to both be on the floor in this offense.
Frankly, that's a good thing. The offense works. It seems silly to mess with that in order to throw bodies at a defense that doesn't. There's a far easier move to make for this team to play like the talent the roster possesses. But after three years of watching his defenses get shredded at the high major level, what reason is there to believe Underwood changes anything now?