Brad Underwood said he becomes spellbound watching a basketball team filled with players he doesn’t know, whose names he can’t pronounce and whose eligibility is long gone.
The game beams from some unknown outpost in Europe. No LeBron James, Steph Curry or James Harden to hold his interest.
If Underwood is recruiting, he’s recruiting ideas.
This is a snapshot of a college basketball coach mesmerized by the art of spacing the floor, the way intelligent ball movement can cripple a defense and the one aspect of the game that has always grabbed his attention.
“I have a complete fascination with passing,” the University of Illinois head coach said.
At home at night he’s watching again, this time an NBA playoff game. When he shows the tape to his players the next day, he’ll point out that during an effective stretch for the Golden State Warriors, the team’s “big men” are all seated on folding chairs.
“Literally every day I’m watching these Euro League games and our staff breaks down all the NBA playoff games,” Underwood said. “You look at Golden State and if Draymond Green is 6-7, he was the tallest guy on the court for them.
“We have an over-infatuation with size. I want good basketball players. I want good players on the court, no matter what their size.”
What Underwood is doing now, while he has time without worrying about prepping for the next game, is creating a template of how he believes the game should be played. He then compares it to the way Illinois played last season.
Underwood has a long list of things the team didn’t do well enough in a 14-18 season. Some might be attributed to personnel limitations. But some are the result of players not fully understanding how the game’s nuances (spacing, penetrate-and-kick passing, trusting the system) can turn some of those losses into victories.
Start with an improvement he sees as absolutely essential: Illinois has to become a better passing team.
“We were close to 1-to-1 with assists-to-turnover ratio last season and that gets you beat,” he said. “That’s a losing proposition in my world of basketball.
“When I was at Stephen F. Austin, we were No. 1, No. 2 and No. 9 in assist totals. If you can’t pass the ball, you’re probably not winning. You’re really limited as to what you can do as a coach offensively. We were not a great passing team. We had ball stoppers, and that’s one of the things we tried to go after in the recruiting process — winners and guys who can pass or shoot and have a skill set.”
Even before a new player arrives on campus this summer, Underwood will tell you Illinois WILL be a better passing team. He believes the combination of returning players who better understand how to get it done, along with the skill of the newcomers, will guarantee it.
“Take a guy like Giorgi Bezhanishvili,” he said of the 6-9 incoming freshman from New Jersey. “I fell in love with him in 10 minutes. He might be as good a passing big as I’ve seen in a long time. He would rather pass than score.
“Andres Feliz (an incoming juco point guard) is a guy who if you put him in a ball screen, you’d better be ready because he’s going to find a way to get you the basketball. And Ayo (Dosunmu) is an elite passer. It becomes a deal where this will be a team that will make the extra pass.”
Underwood seeks improvement in other areas, too.
“We couldn’t drive the ball this year either,” he said. “We never got the ball into the paint to pitch (out) and to score that way.
"The year I was at Oklahoma State, we got the ball into the paint on 71 percent of our possessions. Last year we were at 47 or 48 percent. The main way we got the ball into the paint was to pass it to Leron (Black).”
Unable to dribble the ball into the paint, Illinois was therefore unable to fire it back out to the perimeter, then swing it left or right to get the defense out of position.
“We took an alarming number of contested shots, especially contested 3s,” he said. “That goes against everything I’m about.”
What Underwood is about is working to get one of his three favorite shots — an uncontested 3, a layup or a dunk. That’s what he sees in the modern European game. That’s what he sees in the modern NBA game. That’s what he’s trying to coach at Illinois.
“I want to shoot 3s, but I want to shoot open 3s,” he said. “But to do that you have to drive it,” and force a closeout, then begin a passing sequence that gets that open shot.
“We were unsure and it was just easier to shoot it rather than go make a basketball play. If you drive it once and get a closeout, you might get a shot. But you drive it and pass it and get a second pass and you’ll get an uncontested 3 or a layup. Teams can’t handle that movement. We work on that every single day."
Which takes him back to the Euro League games.
“They have great players, grown men, with high basketball IQs and passing ability," he said. "They run great actions and they use different combinations with players of different sizes.”