Ask University of Illinois basketball coach Brad Underwood if he ever twists on his pillow dreaming about potential lineup combinations with so many newcomers arriving in June, and he answers without hesitation.
“All the time,” the Illini coach said. “I think about it every day.”
But while the thought of sliding freshmen like Ayo Dosunmu, Tevian Jones and Samba Kane into the mix is intriguing, Underwood doesn’t dwell on it just yet. He and his staff are far too busy trying to coax significant improvement from the five players he’ll call his veteran core.
He has already instituted a detailed plan for raising players like Trent Frazier and Kipper Nichols to the next level. This week he sat down and talked about his game plan.
TRENT FRAZIER — In a matter of about six weeks, Frazier went from a struggling freshmen to the Illini's most explosive scorer. He was named to the Big Ten’s all-freshman squad and will return for his sophomore season as the team’s top assist man.
Now Underwood wants more.
“I want Trent to never be satisfied,” Underwood said. “He has no idea what his ceiling is. His ceiling will be what he allows it to be and that’s a scary thought for an 18 or 19-year-old. Yet it’s our job to really keep pushing him and we’ve taken the approach this spring that we’ll be demanding more and expecting more.
“He’ll be the focal point of every team we play against this year. Really, he was late last season. Trent can move into that role as a leader and really set the tone. Physically he’ll improve. He has gotten a lot stronger. He has parts of his game we need him to be better at.
“He needs to become that consistent 3-point shooter, add a little floater game, which he has already been working hard on, and he has to be better at going to his right. All of those things we will demand, and he works hard at them. But not to cap him and to keep pushing him, that’s our main goal with him.”
DA’MONTE WILLIAMS — Underwood may be more excited about the second year for Williams than any other player.
The coach has had to step back and put in perspective the fact that Williams missed nearly all of his senior season at Peoria Manual High School with a significant knee injury, and was withheld from play all summer. He even had an abbreviated fall practice routine and at one point, coaches wondered whether they should play him at all.
“We sat in this very office and talked about redshirting him,” Underwood said. “What we did to him last year was almost unfair and I say that only from the expectation level. My expectation level for him became very high. He wasn’t even in top shape and he probably had some mental questions in his own mind and then to step into Big Ten play and have an impact and help you win games.
“Da’Monte already is our most improved player. He’s explosive athletically. He’s so scary long. I think he can be one of the top defenders not only in our league but in the country. And he’s a guy who works.
“He’ll be better offensively and he has been working at adding aspects to his game like shooting off the dribble and being able to play some at the point. He’s extremely strong physically and that has come with a full year of health. Yeah, he has a bright future.”
AARON JORDAN — When John Groce left and Underwood arrived last March, many figured Jordan would be checking out, too. He hadn’t played much in two years and maybe it was time to look for a new basketball home.
The thing is, Jordan never felt that way. And Underwood has a special level of respect for the 6-foot-5 wing player who will be Illinois’ only senior in 2018-19.
“He’s everything that is great about this and he’s what I want to be about,” Underwood said. “Perseverance. I tell him all the time it took me 25, 26 years to become a head coach. A lot of struggles. You don’t run from that. After his first two years it would have been very easy to look elsewhere and blame someone. A.J. has never done that.
“If we get a program that is built around that, we’ll be in really good shape.
“A.J. is expanding his game. He’s shooting off the bounce. He’s a big strong kid who has to utilize his 3-point shooting ability and then go do the other things. I hope we see with him an air of confidence that comes from being able to do other things that will allow him to be a key figure in everything we do.
“And as our only senior, what a great example. Let’s talk about that with the other teammates and young guys. Put him in a position of trust and leadership and watch other guys follow that path.”
KIPPER NICHOLS — Nichols is an enigma that often causes Underwood to rise from his seat and pound his fist on the scorers’ table. Average players don’t get that reaction. It happens with good players whose potential often wavers.
The 6-6 junior became a versatile but inconsistent player last season. He finished on a note that is a reminder of what he can be — 31 points against Iowa in the season finale.
“I pushed Kipper last season for a reason,” Underwood said. “He always wants to do better and be better. He’s the one guy who was in our office the most.”
The fact that Nichols sought coaching and direction told Underwood a lot. And it allowed him to push Nichols in directions he didn’t always like.
“Sometimes you have to get guys to change and become uncomfortable,” Underwood said. “That’s the only way they can get better and they usually make big jumps when that happens.
“We forget that Kipper only played a half season the year before and with six seniors, he played a limited role. But now he’s in a position where he has changed some things and he has shown he can be a 30-point guy on nights. We’ve tried to help him fix some holes and he’s become more consistent.
“I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t push buttons that make him uncomfortable, and he knows that. Kip and I probably have as good a relationship as anyone on the team. The general public sees me bark at him but they don’t see me give him a hug.”
GREG EBOIGBODIN — The 6-9 freshman wasn’t physically ready for Big Ten basketball. But he occasionally showed flashes and if he can gain some physical strength in this offseason, Underwood believes he can start impacting more games.
“We have to get him doing what he did in high school and that’s rebound the basketball and block shots,” Underwood said. “Those are things he can do.
“He played indecisive or unsure, and that’s part of not having enough confidence physically or being strong enough. He can set screens and run to the rim. He’s a better perimeter shooter than he showed last year. We’ll see a guy who is a much different player than a year ago.
“We break down our ball screen stuff individually and he graded the highest. It wasn’t even close. That excites me. He can be a great defender and he can rebound better.”