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With his relentless offensive system, Brad Underwood looks to bring Illinois out of doldrums

Shannon Ryan, Chicago Tribune on

Published in Basketball

For years as a Kansas State basketball assistant, Brad Underwood attempted to persuade coach Frank Martin to implement his unique offensive scheme.

"He was relentless," Martin said.

The Wildcats, who had started the 2010-11 season ranked No. 3 nationally, weren't clicking offensively. They started Big 12 play 4-6. Martin knew it was time for a change.

"I called him and said, 'Brad, you know that offense that for the last four years you've been talking to me about?' " recalled Martin, now South Carolina's coach. " 'Tomorrow morning I need to meet with you and have you show it to me. We need to try something different.' "

Kansas State won its final six conference games and made it to the Round of 32 of the NCAA Tournament.

"All of a sudden, it started clicking," Underwood said.

Said Martin: "He did what all loyal assistants do. He never stopped telling me what he believed in."

Underwood had validation that his spread offense worked. Not that he didn't fiercely believe in it before.

He still believes in it, an offense designed around spacing, ball reversals and hard cuts he hopes will help propel Illinois basketball out of the depths. The Illini open the season Friday at the State Farm Center against Southern.

While Illinois has missed the NCAA Tournament the last four years, its longest drought since the tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985, Underwood's teams have gone dancing each season -- three times with Stephen F. Austin and last season at Oklahoma State.

Each of those Underwood teams averaged at least 76 points and were ranked in Ken Pomeroy's top 60 for offensive efficiency. Last season's Cowboys ranked first in that category and fifth in the nation with 85.7 points per game.

So what is this offense? And what makes it so effective?

Underwood, whom the Illini hired in March, has tinkered with the system for more than 20 years. It contains elements of the system Johnny Orr ran at Iowa State in the 1980s, Tex Winter's triangle offense he ran at Kansas State and later as a Bulls assistant and Dana Altman's spread system he used at Creighton in the 1990s.

Underwood began running some basic spread offense sets when he was an assistant at Western Illinois from 1992 to 2003. When he was hired at Daytona Beach (Fla.) Community College in 2003, his second stint as a junior-college head coach, Underwood said he really started experimenting.

The system isn't easily implemented. But if used correctly, it can give defenses fits, especially as opposing coaches try to scout and prepare for it.

The offense is about "constantly attacking the rim," Underwood said, either through dribble penetration, precise passing or cutting. The scheme draws defenses away from the basket.

"In essence, it's ball movement and player movement, and that happens simultaneously," Underwood said.

The offense uses players interchangeably at various positions, not determined by height, to create mismatches, typically with four guards on the perimeter and a big man -- who in the past hasn't been all that big -- in the high post. Underwood said he could use 6-foot-4 freshman guard Mark Smith at the five position for Illinois.

"I always bought into the concept of putting five good players on the floor no matter what size they are," Underwood said. "I never understood why people were enamored with a 7-foot center who wasn't any good, just because he was big."

Action begins with the ball reversed to the wing to initiate the offense. Usually, it starts with a player cutting to the rim for a possible layup. If he isn't open to score, he cuts to the corner.

The high-post player moves to the elbow to become a read for the second cutter, who goes to the low post. The player with the ball looks to pass to either cutter or attack the rim.

The offense also utilizes the "pinch post," putting emphasis on the player on the elbow. He'll take a pass from the perimeter and read how his defender guards him, looking to set up a two-man game between himself and a guard.

The offense can continue to reset itself with the built-in fluid movement and presents a nightmare for defenses that have to guard so many scoring options. Underwood said he tries to pick on the opponent's weakest defender.

"It's all about the chess match," he said. "If I can make the other coach change as often as possible, that's to our advantage. ... More teams played zone because they don't want to guard it and don't want to go through all the different (options). You can't."

At Daytona, Underwood knew attempting this unconventional system could be risky. But he quickly saw the impact.

"It was not what everybody did," he said. "Who puts a 6-foot guard in the post and runs cutters off him and rolls him to the block for the post-up? One, (the guard we had) was a pretty good post-up player, and two, how many other coaches are teaching their point guard how to play post defense? ... It went from just a 'Let me see how it looks' to 'Wow, this stuff can cause some problems.' "

At Stephen F. Austin, versatile players found success in the system. Jacob Parker, the team's 6-foot-7 big man, averaged 14.2 points and became the Southland Conference's player of the year in 2013-14. Thomas Walkup, at 6-4, won the same honor the next two seasons, averaging 15.6 and 18.1 points.

"It was the only way we could score in the paint," Underwood said. "We weren't going to win with post-ups."

Illinois' versatile 6-10 forward Michael Finke, who shot 41 percent on 3-pointers last season, could be a perfect fit.

"It's a lot of footwork and knowing the right cuts," Finke said. "It's really precise. The pinch post, I love that position. It's so much fun and I love the freedom that you have."

Underwood has fed the system piecemeal to his Illinois players, five of whom are freshmen.

"There is a certain level of basketball IQ that has to be developed through repetition to run it," he said. "It looks simplistic, but the reads take some time. Timing is very important. I script the first five things in the game I want to do. I'm like an offensive coordinator in football."

Underwood watches more NBA games these days, trying to pick up nuances from coaches who increasingly run positionless basketball. His veteran team at Stephen F. Austin could run at least 30 spread counters to the defenses they faced.

"You couldn't guard us," he said. "It can get pretty intricate."

Underwood grins as he talks about the spread offense and its variations. For him, creating new wrinkles to it is like completing the Sunday New York Times crossword puzzle.

"As much as I've run it and the things we've done, it still challenges me mentally every day to find things and create things out of it," he said. "It's not just Point A to Point B. There's so much creativity. It's been fun to challenge myself mentally with it."

(c)2017 Chicago Tribune

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