Underwood recaps Illinois men’s basketball summer workouts

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The Daily Illini File Photo

Sophomore guard RJ Melendez goes for the lay up during the Big Ten Tournament game against Indiana on March 11. Brad Underwood, Illinois men’s basketball head coach, discusses Melendez’s impressive 30-pound weight increase.

By Conor Blount, Staff Writer

Last week, the players of Illinois men’s basketball took their first break in eight weeks, 12 for the freshmen, as the NCAA entered its mandatory dead period. Head coach Brad Underwood took time to speak to reporters about Illinois basketball’s summer, highlighting an impressive work ethic from the group as a whole along with substantial strides on individual levels. Underwood reeked of confidence while detailing the growth his roster experienced this offseason. 

Returning from injury

In March, freshman guard Skyy Clark de-committed from the University of Kentucky and within a month, committed to Illinois. At the time, Clark was still recovering from a partial ACL tear he suffered in July 2021. Many Illinois fans were hopeful Clark would be ready to play by the time the season started.

Just over a year since Clark’s injury, Underwood has confirmed that Clark is now fully cleared for practice after being limited for much of Illinois’ summer workouts.

“Skyy is cleared, he is 100%,” said Underwood. “Really a significant summer for him in terms of his growth and the mental piece … he had his best workout of the year, his last one, yesterday.”

For many, the road to recovery does not end here, as being told one is medically cleared and being back to one’s former self are two completely different things. The nagging worry of potentially being re-injured holds many back. As Clark works to get back, one might expect some hesitancy from Clark to perform the explosive actions he was once known for. 

However, Underwood described a completely different tale, detailing how quickly Clark has returned to form since being cleared.

“People think with an ACL it’s just running and jumping,” Underwood said. “It’s actually stopping and turning and pivoting and those things where you come off a ball screen and you gotta pivot on one foot, turn and shoot a jump shot and boy we saw him pop up yesterday and shoot two … it was the Skyy I saw two years ago.”

Underwood cites much of Clark’s quick mental recovery to his willingness to work hard, stating that Clark’s work ethic has impressed several members of Illinois’ trainers and coaching staff.

“He worked extremely hard,” Underwood said.  “Talking with Paul Schmidt and Fletch, they were extremely impressed with his work ethic, his dedication to getting that back and 100% healthy. I think that gives him tremendous confidence on the mental side.”

All statements from Underwood are extremely encouraging for Clark’s ability to impact the team. A full recovery was an excellent starting point, but doing so with a work ethic that managed to impress trainers who have been around hard working athletes for years is an outstanding sign for Clark’s development.

Perrin performing for France

While the rest of Illinois’ roster spent their summers in the midwest, freshman forward Zacharie Perrin was in Turkey, representing France at the FIBA U18 European Championships.

Perrin and his country went undefeated in the group stage, winning each game by an average of over 40 points, before falling to Slovenia in the quarterfinals.

Individually, Perrin led France in points per game (13.9) and rebounds per game (9.1), while also showing flashes of playmaking that are uncommon among players of his size.

Underwood has previously spoken on how Illinois decided to extend Perrin an offer despite limited in person scouting, and Perrin’s success for France during this tournament has only increased Underwood’s confidence in Perrin. 

“It’s pretty fun, it’s pretty good to watch,” Underwood said. “You see a guy that is doing it on the highest stage. That event is filled with pros and future NBA prospects. You’re seeing him do it in an ultra competitive environment. Some of the games in the pool play have been blowouts, but it’s still the best in the world.”

Underwood also took time to note that Perrin’s teammates are extremely talented, something that will help smooth Perrin’s transition to playing at Illinois, where he will be surrounded with just as much talent.

“He’s surrounded himself with very good players,” said Underwood. “I love seeing that because when he gets to this level he’s going to be around other guys who are pros.”

Perrin’s successes at the highest stage can only be seen as good news for Illinois. Combine that with even more experience being able to defer to an extremely talented team, Perrin is projected to be a very valuable piece for the Illini.

Conditioning & Lifting

Another key focus for the Illini this summer seemed to be giving the freshmen a taste of what collegiate conditioning is all about, while simultaneously getting the veterans back in shape as well. Underwood noted that during Clark’s limited clearance, the biggest thing he missed out on was the conditioning that everyone else was doing. 

“He was able to do individual stuff … so he hasn’t missed a ton, he’s missed the conditioning piece of the continual running and now that he’s cleared for that he’s done a good amount the last two days.”

Underwood also mentioned that redshirt sophomore forward Dain Dainja, a mid-season transfer from Baylor, has been putting in a lot of work to increase his stamina. 

“We saw Dain Dainja under 260 (pounds),” said Underwood. “Dain’s had a terrific summer … he’s built his stamina, he’s been running stadium steps every morning, he’s been putting himself in position to be in elite shape when the season starts and it’s a lot of hard work to do that.”

Conditioning was listed as one of Dainja’s biggest concerns in his high school scouting reports and hearing about such effort from Dainja on his conditioning is encouraging.

On top of conditioning, this summer has also been about putting on muscle mass. Several players have reached significant weight milestones during workouts according to Underwood, with none as impressive as sophomore forward RJ Meléndez’s 30-pound weight increase.

“RJ was 210 the other day which is the first time he’s hit that mark,” said Underwood. “A lot of credit goes to Fletch and Palmer for their job not just in the weight room but on the nutrition side to get RJ from 180 pounds when he got here to 210 now.”

Defense as a priority

Since Underwood was made head coach of Illinois in 2017, defense has been a clear focus for the Illini. In four of the five seasons Underwood has been head coach, the Illini have been top three in the Big Ten at turnovers forced per game, a feat Illinois had not accomplished since the 2011–2012 season. 

Underwood spoke about the importance of defense during this summer’s workouts, mentioning specifically how vital it is to get freshmen to communicate.

“The hardest part on the defensive side is getting guys to communicate,” Underwood said. “You know we have a saying, ‘Quiet teams lose.’ Freshmen are indecisive in what to say so the communication piece of it is helping them understand what to say.”

Despite the natural indecisiveness of freshmen, Underwood seemed impressed with the work the freshmen have put in this summer. 

“This is a willing group on the defensive side,” said Underwood. “Sencire (Harris), Ty Rodgers, and Jayden Epps, those guys take great pride in what they do on that side of things. I take a lot of comfort knowing those guys are willing to work on that end.”

Underwood also noted that he is confident when Clark is able to actively participate on the defensive end, he will be just as devoted as the rest of his class.

 

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