Analyzing Brad Underwood’s Big Ten media day press conference


The Daily Illini File Photo

Illinois men’s basketball head coach Brad Underwood watches the team warm up from the sidelines before the game against Ohio State on Feb. 24.

By Carson Gourdie, Sports Video Editor

‘We’ve got a lot of option’: Underwood touts additions at Media Day press conference

Illinois basketball head coach Brad Underwood spoke at Big Ten basketball media days, delivering his thoughts on his team that’s projected to finish second in the conference.

After a Big Ten championship, the Illini head into this season projected to finish second in the conference to the Indiana Hoosiers, according to a Columbus Dispatch poll.

Underwood spoke at Big Ten basketball Media Days in Minneapolis, sharing his thoughts on the program and answering reporters’ questions heading into the season.  


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    Underwood’s ability to adapt:

    ​​“Yeah, I like to win. I like to win. And I think my years as a junior college coach, you’ve got to learn to be flexible.

    (But) I know what we don’t compromise in our program, and yet, we’ve been planning for life without Kofi for a while. And you know, it wasn’t gonna be the same way. With him, we weren’t gonna go out and find another seven footer that was 300 pounds. So how do we go about doing that? And what are those changes look like? And, you know, we went to get, you know, a bunch of position lists guys who are skilled and, and, you know, we’ll put a system together and find out how that works and the best league in the country.”



    Underwood moved away from his up-tempo defensive approach in 2020. It resulted in his team’s defense going from bottom half to the best in the conference.

    When Ayo Dosunmu and Adam Miller left the program, Underwood brought in sharp-shooting guard Alfonso Plummer and tailored the offense around Kofi Cockburn. They won the conference.

    Underwood, unlike Jay Wright and other coaches who have left the profession, has embraced change, and it has established Illinois as the most sure-fire program in the conference.

    Cockburn leaving can scare the average fan, but Underwood has found more athletic personnel that can overcome a rough shooting night.


    Replacing Kofi:

     “Well, I woke up every night last year knowing I had 20 (points) and 10 (rebounds from Kofi). And that’s a pretty good feeling. And obviously Kofi is unique. 

    I think there’s a lot of ways to win. I think there’s things that caused us problems (because of) playing Kofi.

    I thought that Iowa last year (is) as an example. They were playing very, very small. And they gave, they gave us problems. So I think it’s a two way street. I think that obviously we’ve seen the next level. We’ve seen the game change in the NBA level.

    But yeah, I think (having a Kofi) can be very beneficial, (but) they have to be good players. You just can’t throw a lot of size out there that can’t play.”



    Cockburn’s impact on the program can’t be overstated. He was a mismatch for nearly every center — aside from Purdue’s Zach Edey — and his walking double-double status helped the Illini become a premier Big Ten program. 

    But Cockburn was limited. Ball security was an issue, and he wasn’t an effective passer. If a team could double team and slow down Cockburn, Plummer and Frazier weren’t making shots, they lost. 

    Hello, Houston Cougars. 

    While Illinois may have lost size at center, they gained it in other positions — such as the wings and guards. Illinois was torn apart by Houston’s ability to secure offensive rebounds but having Matthew Mayer and Terrence Shannon Jr. will surely limit an analogous situation.


    Offensive game plan this season:

    “Yeah, got a lot of different options. I don’t know what those are yet. (We’ll figure it out once) we get to scrimmages and exhibition games.

    I love our personnel. I think we’re as talented as we have been. It just looks different. And we’ve got a position with size. 

    And we’ve got guys who can break it down off the dribble, we have a very good shooting team. So we’ll have to figure all that out. But you know, instead of just throwing the ball down to Kofi, we’ll have some different options.”



    No one on the team is a proven bucket. Shannon struggled with efficiency at Texas Tech University. Mayer was a very solid role player, but he never scored higher than 9.8 points per game. Coleman Hawkins hasn’t developed moves in the post. Skyy Clark is coming off an ACL tear, and whether he’s the same explosive player remains to be seen. RJ Melendez is probably the safest bet, but he hasn’t received enough minutes. 

    It appears that Underwood must find multiple ways to score. Underwood wants the team to find easy buckets in transition. Several players on the team — including Hawkins — have shown an ability to hit a three-point shot. 

    While Underwood said offense is still unclear, the veteran coach is vocal about his team’s defensive ability.

    Replacing Andre Curbelo and Plummer with two Big Twelve defensive standouts — Shannon and Mayer — will elevate its play as the duo will add rebounding and length to the court.


    Preseason hype despite losing Kofi, Plummer, Frazier, etc. 

    “I think there’s some respect there. I think we’ve done it for three years. That doesn’t mean anything for this year. But I think that a great staff has put together a very good recruiting class. And that’s not just the freshmen, the portal included.

    Now compared to when we were (ranked) 14th when I got the job … I think we’ve come a long way. You know, it’s great synergy when you got an athletic director giving you new facilities and we’re moving into a new practice facility and you know, we can sell winning now.”



    Illinois lost nearly 80% of its scoring production from last season. Cockburn, Plummer and Frazier accounted for 47.1 points per game. But pundits know that the Illini’s defensive capabilities will cover up the offensive troubles in the Big Ten conference. While Mayer and Shannon have never put up Dosunmu-like numbers, they were also not given the opportunity.

    Mayer — while a key contributor to Baylor’s national title — was a glorified role player. Shannon would start games off the bench last season. Mayer, who was also looked at by North Carolina this offseason, has shown an ability to be a spot-up shooter, and he was looking for a place like Illinois where he could play a bigger role.


    Not advancing to the Sweet 16 yet:

    “Just keep getting back (to the tournament is the goal). You know, I think I look back and every program you know, we had a bad day against Loyola (Chicago) and they beat us. And, you know, last year, we were not very healthy. And that’s not an excuse. Houston was good. 

    Take a look at every great program during the journey, and they’ve been beat. 

    I’m not going to balance our growth by getting upset in the tournament. You know, I’ve been on the other side of those, you know, being a 14 (seed) and beaten a three (seed). That’s what makes it March Madness.

    But I know as long as we keep getting back in that situation, keep winning Big Ten championships, the tournament run will happen.” 



    Villanova struggled mightily in the first weekend for much of the Jay Wright era, who lost one of his national championships with three Rounds of 32 losses as a top-two seed or better. 

    The whole Big Ten has struggled in the NCAA tournament in the past two seasons, aside from Juwan Howard of Michigan. The 2021 loss to Loyola University Chicago is inexcusable, and Underwood doesn’t shy away from the fact that the game was a bad day for the program. 

    But the Houston result shouldn’t make fans nervous that Underwood may not be the man for the job.

    Houston dominated the boards with tall guards who could offensively rebound, and an over reliance on Kofi Cockburn and three-point shooting. Underwood knows that. That’s why he picked up Shannon and Mayer, 6’6 and 6’9 wings who can score in transition and rebound effectively. 

    Last season’s team could be compared as finesse compared to this season’s squad. But it will clearly be a more effective unit. While they may not have a go-to guy like Plummer or Cockburn, the Illini have found new ways to score, and the defense’s improved athleticism will allow them to compete in any game. 

    Look at Texas Tech and Houston, who Underwood is modeling this approach after. None of them had a star offensive player. Heck, Houston was missing its top two scorers against Illinois. However, offensive rebounds gave them second chance points and the physical defense opened easy baskets in transitions. 

    Illinois has the personnel this season to copy it. 



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