Illinois finally found the formula for getting past NCAA Tournament’s first weekend

OMAHA, Neb. — Brad Underwood took his time leaving the floor on Saturday night. He clapped his hands above his head as he walked toward the Illinois cheering section, then stopped and punched at the air twice in celebration.

Underwood would say later that it was for the fans, who hadn’t experienced getting out of the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament since 2005. His team cruised there with a dominant 89-63 second-round win over Duquesne, getting that damn monkey off the program’s back. But, if he were being honest, this had weighed on him too. He’d been to seven NCAA Tournaments as a head coach and never made it past the Round of 32, including a frustrating second-round loss as a No. 1 seed three years ago to Loyola Chicago.

This wasn’t just an Illinois problem; it’s a Big Ten problem.

The league hasn’t produced a national champion since Michigan State in 2000. Most teams build to win in their league, and that has been the Big Ten’s issue. You win in March with guards. You win in the Big Ten with bigs.

And that 2021 team? Very Big Ten-ish, built around 7-foot behemoth Kofi Cockburn.

“When we lost as a (No, 1), we had holes,” Underwood said. “And we were really good. Ayo (Dosunmu) was obviously a pro. Kofi was an All-American. But we had no positional size. We got away with it, because of Kofi. And yet, we were very, very limited in what we could do offensively and defensively.”

Underwood made a decision then. He was no longer going to build with the Big Ten in mind; he was building for March.

He had one more season with Cockburn, surrounding him with little guards who could shoot. But once the big fella was gone, it was time to lean into where he saw the game was going.

“We started recruiting bigger wings,” he said. “We’ve got a small guard or two in our program, but really understanding that versatility was much more key than having a 7-footer. I enjoyed Kofi. I’ve hated playing against Zach Edey, but we’ve also got to figure out ways to have continued success in the postseason as well.”

This season the Illini start five players all 6-foot-6 or taller. Underwood likes to say they start five power forwards, because they’ve all played that position at one time in their career.

After one weekend, it looks like Underwood might have much more than a second-weekend team. The Illini head to the East Regional in Boston as hot as anyone in this tournament, following up a Big Ten tournament title with two convincing wins in Omaha. They head to Boston with the best offense in the country, rising to No. 1 in adjusted efficiency at

And they got there with a little help from a new friend.

After losing at Tennessee on Dec. 9, Underwood met that night with former Villanova coach Jay Wright, who had called the game for CBS. Wright had long been an acquaintance, but lately Underwood says he’s become a friend. And he was a big fan of Underwood’s super senior guard Marcus Domask. “He’s unguardable,” Wright told him.

Underwood and his son Tyler, who helps run his offense, had been experimenting some with Domask backing down his man, a concept Underwood unlovingly coined “booty ball” last season when Penn State beat the Illini three times with Jalen Pickett in iso backdowns. Wright had more success in college basketball than anyone posting up his guards, and he liked what he saw in the limited times the Illini had gone to it with Domask.

“You got to commit to it,” Wright said.

Tyler Underwood had spent all summer studying the Oklahoma City Thunder, a team that had a similar makeup to Illinois — big guards and a shooting five — and the Illini had already adopted a five-out offense. They called it spread open, trying to play through stretch-five Coleman Hawkins with Princeton-type concepts away from the ball. The idea was to get everyone touching the ball. “A lot of fluff,” Tyler calls it.


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That night the Underwoods met, discussed Wright’s feedback and made a decision.

Let’s do it. Enough of the fluff. 

“We were turning the ball over too much,” Underwood said. “And we needed to find a way to play into advantages for Marcus.”

They scrapped the NBA sets and started studying Wright’s old Villanova teams, particularly when he had Jalen Brunson. Domask would be their Brunson. They’d unleash him in booty ball and also post up 6-foot-6 wing Ty Rodgers. They’d quit posting up Hawkins and backup center Dain Dainja. They’d keep playing fast. Seven seconds or less has always been the goal in initial offense. But if a quick shot wasn’t there, they’d try to pick on a mismatch or create them with ball screens.

“Everything in basketball is about creating an advantage, getting two to the ball,” Tyler Underwood said. “We try to get two to the ball, and then we work a ton on just playing from there.”

That meant fewer passes and not everyone touching the ball, but the players bought in because the coaches consulted them on where they liked the ball. Hawkins could still initiate from the perimeter. The floor was now open for Terrence Shannon Jr., who had struggled his first season with the Illini in attacking closeouts. The ball had stuck once it got to Shannon last season as he surveyed the floor and looked for driving lanes. They preached to him point-five basketball, meaning to decide a half-second.

The early results were promising. Two weeks in, the Illini smoked Missouri 97-73 in the final game before Shannon was suspended. The Illini leaned even more on Domask in the six games without Shannon, making it clear that he was the hub of the offense.

It took some adjusting once Shannon returned, but he’s now playing the best basketball of his life, getting better about picking his spots to attack. No one in college basketball is harder to guard in space, and he’s averaging 30.5 points per game during the Illini’s current six-game winning streak.

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Terrence Shannon Jr. is averaging over 30 points a game over his last six contests. (Michael Reaves / Getty Images)

Morehead State had a smart game plan for Domask on Thursday, sending extra help his way once he started backing down and cheating off Rodgers. The Illini showed they have a changeup, going to a bigger lineup against Morehead with Dainja, who scored 21 points and didn’t miss a shot. When needed, Dainja can still be the traditional back-to-the-basket big. Domask eventually dissected the coverage, pulling the help over to get two to the ball and then setting up his teammates. He had his first career triple-double with 12 points, 10 assists and 11 rebounds.

Duquesne had been the sixth-best defense in college basketball during a nine-game winning streak and slowed the high-octane BYU offense with physicality, bumping cutters and off-ball action that was very similar to how Illinois tried to play early this season.

But without the fluff, it came down to one-on-one defense. Duquesne looked outclassed from the jump, with too much space to cover.

“It’s a little unique,” Tyler Underwood said. “Not everyone touches the ball every single possession. But our guys have had fun with it, and it’s been a blast.”

Wright had one other thing to share with his friend back in December. He knew exactly the pressure he felt.

Wright told Underwood about his struggles early on at Villanova. It took him four seasons to make an NCAA Tournament. After making his first Final Four in 2009, Wright didn’t get out of the first weekend for another seven years. Of course, he not only got out of the first weekend in 2016, he won the national championship.

“Every great coach has gone through …,” Underwood said, before catching himself. “I’m not saying I’m a great coach; I think every coach has gone through it.”

Underwood mentions Bill Self, who lost to Bucknell and Bradley in his second and third seasons at Kansas, and then lost in the Elite Eight the next season before following that up with his first national title. Self had Illinois rolling in the early 2000s, starting a run of second-weekend appearances that Bruce Weber continued in his first two years. For four out of five seasons, the Illini made the second weekend, culminating with the 2005 run to the national title game.

That kind of sustained success? Can this program get back to that?

“It’s way too good a program (not to),” Underwood said. “Look at the fans that are here. We sell out every night. We spent $170 million renovating the State Farm Center. We just built a 40-plus million-dollar practice facility. This is an incredible program. To me, that’s more shocking it’s been 19 years. And I’m happy for all of them. I’m happy for the fans. I’m happy for the program. I never doubted that I would get there.”

He brings up Wright again.

“I hope I have his success,” Underwood says and laughs.

You get the feeling he’s only half-joking. He believes he’s found the blueprint, which he says he’ll never stray from.

Booty ball, a skilled center and Villanova with pace. That can win in March and April.

(Photo of Brad Underwood: Steven Branscombe / USA Today)

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