CHAMPAIGN — Before one of Illinois’ early non-conference games in November, Geoff Alexander kicked back in a courtside seat and studied the players during the pre-game shootaround.
Alexander was hand-picked by Brad Underwood to be his assistant to the head coach in large part because they have a long history together that dates back to when Alexander was a player and Underwood was an assistant coach at Western Illinois University.
Alexander knows Underwood’s intricate offense. He knows what Underwood wants on defense.
Most important of all, he knows Brad Underwood.
So when the question came – When would you like this team to really understand what Brad wants to do on offense? – Alexander knew his answer was wishful thinking.
“Yesterday,” he said.
Alexander went on to say that it typically takes a month or more for players to digest all that Underwood throws at them. That meant it could be well into December – maybe longer – before Underwood felt comfortable enough to do what he calls “scheme,” which is to say orchestrate switches and plays that can create mismatches.
After Friday night’s intense and physical Big Ten opener against Northwestern, a game Illinois lost 72-68 in overtime – Underwood said he was “frustrated,” and “irritated” and the smoke practically rolled from his ears as he ticked through the list of items that could have made a difference.
“We went after loose balls with one hand,” he said looking like he’d just bit into a lemon. “We had 19 turnovers and eight assists. We’re not going to beat anyone with eight assists.
“We gave one away,” he seethed. “I felt like we outplayed them and I feel very strongly about that.”
Eight games in and we already understand that Brad Underwood is not a good loser. He admits that. When mistakes are made, he’ll bang away at fixing them until they’re fixed. We’re not to the point of lineup changes yet, but when freshman Mark Smith was struggling to make defensive switches, Underwood put him on the bench in favor of Da’Monte Williams. No questions asked.
“The help-side defensive plays our freshmen aren’t making…we have to learn that. And that’s why some of these freshmen, their minutes got cut tonight.”
Smith played just eight minutes. His previous low was 21 in the season opener.
Underwood is pushing this team in practice, hoping to condense the time it takes to gain greater mastery of his offense. But he knows there is still a ways to go.
“I look at (Northwestern coach Chris Collins’) play sheet and all the plays he runs on my computer,” Underwood said. “And there’s a big difference when you are playing veterans.”
Collins, in his fifth year at Northwestern, is starting three seniors and two juniors.
Underwood, in his first season at Illinois, is starting one grad transfer, two juniors, a sophomore and a freshman. And none of them really dived into Underwood’s system until practice began in October.
“I pulled out my old play card at Stephen F. Austin and it looks a little different,” he said.
But Underwood knows this is who his first Illini team is in early December. “It’s no excuse for not winning the game,” he said.
He’s also not entirely hung up on what Illinois has done poorly in a pair of road losses this week.
“I give Te’Jon Lucas a lot of credit,” he said. “He was outstanding throughout the night.
“Mark Alstork was great. He was defensively dialed in. His help-side stuff was off the chart. You can tell he has experience. He’s been through it.” Even though his outside shot has not been falling, Alstork attacked relentlessly, finishing with 14 points, six rebounds, three assists and two steals.
And Underwood has special praise for Da’Monte Williams. The freshman still hasn’t figured out his offensive game, but Underwood sees enough to reward him with more minutes.
“He has incredible hands and incredible length,” Underwood said. “And the most important thing about Da’Monte: He does very little wrong.
“He has great instincts. I liken it to the ‘it’ factor. I don’t know what ‘it’ is, but it’s the stuff you don’t have to coach. I think every player has to earn his coach’s trust, and I have a lot of trust in him because he does so many things at both ends of the court.
“He’s going to make some freshman mistakes, but that’s one dialed-in guy. He’s one of the best listeners as a freshman I’ve been around in a long time. He’s an exceptional listener. He learns.”
That’s where Underwood and the Illini are right now. Still learning. Gaining on it. But not quite there yet. It’s a process Underwood understands, even if it occasionally frustrates and irritates him.