This Is Not Going to Go the Way You Think

Brad Underwood has forgotten more basketball than I'll ever know. But I think he's wrong about the defense. At the risk of retelling a tired story, Underwood ran a high-pressure defense at Stephen F. Austin with much success, leading to a 53-1 conference mark over three seasons. He brought that same system with him to Oklahoma State, and proceeded to lose his first 6 conference games, in large part because the team allowed 1.2 points per possession over that stretch.

So, he abruptly changed the defense, to something more akin to a pack line defense. The defense sits back, allowing the offense to pass around the perimeter, but this reduces the number of lanes (both via passing and via the bounce) into the paint.

Which leads us to this season. One might think that Underwood learned his lesson, and that he's done with that pressure defense that worked so well for him at SFA. After all, while the Big XII is not the Big Ten, those two conferences are a lot more alike than they are similar to the Southland.

But that's not happening, and defense was a problem last night, when Illinois allowed Wake Forest to score 1.13 points per possession. Unless Underwood can mold this offense into something akin to Peak Beilein, that's not going to cut it (and the early returns suggest that's an absurd expectation).

Underwood's pressure defense is supposed to cut off passing lanes and generate turnovers. And, it can do that:

But most high major teams are better at taking care of the ball than that. If you look around high major teams in conference play, you'll find precious few with great defenses built on a foundation of turnovers. Here is a list of all of the power conference teams with defenses that forced turnovers at a rate at least 10 percent above the conference average last season.

Team Conference TO% Conference Avg Turnover% Percent Above Avg Conference Defensive Rank
South Carolina SEC 25.2 18.4 37.0 1st
WVU Big XII 24.5 19 28.9 1st
Stanford Pac-12 21.5 17.2 25.0 6th
Cincinnati AAC 22.1 18.5 19.5 1st
St. John's Big East 21.6 18.3 18.0 8th
UVA ACC 20.3 17.2 18.0 1st
Kansas State Big XII 22.2 19 16.8 6th
Oregon Pac-12 20 17.2 16.3 1st
FSU ACC 19.8 17.2 15.1 5th
Wisconsin Big Ten 20.6 17.9 15.1 1st
Penn State Big Ten 20.1 17.9 12.3 6th
Iowa Big Ten 20.1 17.9 12.3 10th
Syracuse ACC 19.3 17.2 12.2 9th
Iowa State Big XII 21.1 19 11.1 7th
Michigan Big Ten 19.8 17.9 10.6 11th
Villanova Big East 20.2 18.3 10.4 1st
Florida SEC 20.3 18.4 10.3 2nd
Houston AAC 20.4 18.5 10.3 4th

Well, it's not hard to see where Underwood gets it from. From 2006-13, Underwood served as an assistant for both Bob Huggins and Frank Martin, and it's probably no coincidence to see them at the top. And those two teams did force a crazy number of turnovers, which almost certainly drove the success on that end of the floor. But frankly, so did Stanford. But the Cardinal also fouled a ton to get there and ranked a meager 8th in defensive effective field goal percentage.

And once you get past those extreme examples, it's a mixed bag that is almost entirely dependent on whether those defenses were able to induce missed shots (Cincinnati, UVA, Oregon) or not (St. John's, Kansas State, Iowa).

Of course, the easy answer would be for the Illini to simply walk and chew gum at the same time. Why can't they be the Gamecocks of the Big Ten? Well, the Illini are not that good, full stop. A simple crossover is enough to get past faceguarding, and when the team has its back to the ball, help defense often arrives late:

The Illini lack a tall post defender, so when matched up against a 7-0 talent like Doral Moore, the best plan is to keep the ball out of his hands. One way to do that is to put more bodies in the paint at the expense of allowing the ball to move freely around the perimeter. Underwood does not want to do that, so instead the help arrives from the weak side: And when Underwood really wants to dial up the pressure, he asks his team to guard for 94 feet. But when that does not result in a turnover in the backcourt, the defense is largely in scramble mode for the remainder of the possession, leaving unguarded players in prime scoring positions.

I suspect this will be A Thing for the remainder of Underwood's tenure. Even after it failed miserably at Oklahoma State, he's trying it again at Illinois. And I'm sure he looks fondly at the defenses his former co-workers Martin and Huggins have put together, and would cite those as evidence why this can work.

And sure, it can. But I don't think it will.