Illinois doesn’t have any returning size to speak of for next season as head coach Brad Underwood appears to be embracing small ball.
In a radio interview Friday with Lon Tay and Derek Piper on ESPN’s 93.5, Underwood addressed an Illini roster that features no players taller than 6-foot-6 returning to the roster from last season. While Illinois has a six-man recruiting class featuring 6-foot-11 Samba Kane and 6-foot-9 Giorgi Bezhanishvili, both of those big men are considered three-star prospects who are more developmental pieces in the class.
It means that Underwood is embracing three- and four-guard lineup possibilities while also potentially playing a smaller player at the five. With Trent Frazier coming back, along with talented freshman guards like Ayo Dosunmu and Andres Feliz, expect to see a lot of small-ball lineups for Illinois this season.
“I think everybody gets excited about bigs. Draymond Green is Golden State’s center. Draymond is 6’6”, maybe 6’7”. The most important thing to us in our system is guard play. Because it’s about breaking the defense down, it’s about playing with some tempo and pace. All of (our) perimeter players are different,” Underwood said in the interview. “Villanova played a lot of the time in the Final Four with three point guards on the court. So you could see Trent, Ayo and Andres Feliz on the court together. And I love the versatility because it’s creativity, it’s good basketball players and they can all do things that enable you to win. Pass, guard, shoot it, get it into the paint.”
Preach, Brad Underwood, Preach.
Illinois will undoubtedly have a disadvantage against many Big Ten opponents when it comes to interior defense and rebounding. But rather than playing big guys who might not be ready to help at all, Underwood seems content on putting his five best players on the floor — regardless of size or “positional fit.”
That approach has worked well for Golden State. As Underwood noted, it worked pretty well for Villanova last season.
This isn’t to say that Illinois should be viewed as some sort of Big Ten contender because they’re following in the mold of some recent champions. Small-ball isn’t some cure-all magic formula. The Illinois roster is very young and inexperienced and filled with question marks at multiple spots. But it means Illinois should at least be fun to watch next season as they could use some creative lineups to attack the Big Ten’s best.
(H/t: Derek Piper, Illini Inquirer)