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Hoops Preview: Illinois has taken early lumps. Can Mizzou end its Braggin’ Rights struggles?

Brad Underwood’s rebuild of the Illini has involved a 14-18 debut, roster churn, recruiting questions and a slow start this season. Now, Missouri will try to halt their five-year run of rivalry supremacy.

NCAA Basketball: UNLV at Illinois Mike Granse-USA TODAY Sports

Brad Underwood is no stranger to a mass exodus.

Stints leading Dodge County Community College and Daytona Beach Community, a pair or jobs where he assembled a 61.1 win percentage, inoculate a coach to roster turnover. It’s also a fact of life for a Division I coach working in this era, one where roughly 40 percent of players transfer by the end of their sophomore seasons. When Underwood arrived at Illinois, a degree of churn wasn’t just an expectation. It was an expectation.

Try telling that to a restless fanbase — one eager to see the Fighting Illini end a five-year absence from the NCAA tournament.

This spring, six players decamped from Champaign. Leron Black, who completed his undergraduate studies, opted to pursue a professional career. Michael Finke used a graduate-transfer exception to join his brother at Grand Canyon. Te’jon Lucas (Milwaukee) and Greg Eboigbodin (Northeastern) also found new homes.

We also can’t omit the crown jewel of Underwood’s first recruiting class: guard Mark Smith. As the curtain came down on Smith’s freshman season, swaths of the Illini fanbase had soured on the state’s former Mr. Basketball, and opting for a fresh start at Missouri didn’t help those wounds mend.

(As a note, Underwood said in early November he had no qualms with the sophomore landing in Columbia or earning an NCAA waiver for immediate eligibility.)

To fill the roster chasm, he brought in six freshmen, a junior college transfer and a graduate transfer — or the kind of churn that had him preaching patience at Big Ten Conference media days. “It never happens as fast as you want it to happen,” Underwood told reporters in October. “Fans and everybody want it to happen yesterday. It’s a process.”

Earlier in the preseason, he alluded to a culture change that was finally gaining momentum — verbiage that is also a poorly masked indictment to what transpired during a 14-18 debut campaign. Granted, Underwood has made not-so-subtle references to spending as much time cajoling members of that team to give maximum effort as he did installing his intricate offense.

“We fought through our culture last year on a daily basis,” Underwood said in September.

Personalities clash and skillsets may not fit, but seeing what amounts to the second reboot in as many seasons is jarring.

At the same time, Underwood’s efforts on the recruiting trail have also left some segments of his fanbase skittish, as top targets in E.J. Liddell, Drew Timme, Oscar Tshiebwe and Quincy Guerrier — all of whom took official visits — committed elsewhere this fall. Those misses followed on the heels of last October’s saga that left the Illini choosing to take Ayo Dosunmu over Talen Horton-Tucker, bruising egos in Chicago basketball circles. And just this week, the Chicago Sun-Times published a piece pointedly critiquing Underwood’s absence from high-school gyms over the first month of the season.

Notching a win Saturday night against Missouri in the Braggin’ Rights game won’t alleviate those concerns, but a sixth straight victory over the Tigers would be hardwood version of popping a Xanax.

Fortunately, he has the ideal conductor in sophomore point guard Trent Frazier. Kipper Nichols is a junior jack of all trades. Senior Aaron Jordan, who had been glued to the bench when playing for John Groce, has used his jumper to carve out a role as a floor spacer. Finally, sophomore guard Da’Monte Williams has shown potential as a stopper on the defensive end.

Depth, though, has been an early issue. Dosunmu, a five-star talent at point guard, and Giorgi Bezhanishvili, a 6-foot-9 forward, have seen substantial minutes. So has junior Andres Feliz, who was the nation’s No. 1 JUCO point guard last season. Pairing those newcomers with veteran hands leaves Illinois rolling seven deep — assuming Bezhanishvili, who averages 6.4 fouls per 40 minutes, stays on the floor.

Freshman guard Tevian Jones, the nation’s No. 119 prospect, will see his indefinite suspension stretch to six games. Forward Anthony Higgs is still recovering from a foot injury, while Toledo grad-transfer Adonis De La Rosa is still rounding into form after undergoing knee surgery last season. It explains why freshman Samba Kane, a lithe 7-footer, has been called upon after there were early rumblings of a redshirt.

Broadly speaking, Illinois fits the identity Underwood is trying to cultivate. They play fast, knock down 3-balls and force scores of turnovers. Yet the Illini’s lack of size allows opponents to pulverize them on the glass and makes contested shots around the rim a challenge. On the defensive end, a roster that skews young and applies assertive on-ball pressure runs up the foul count.

The schedule Underwood assembled brooked them no relief, either. So far, his team has played Gonzaga (No. 6 in KenPom), Nebraska (No. 14) Iowa State (No. 19), Ohio State (No. 23), Notre Dame (No. 52), Xavier (No. 71) away from the State Farm Arena. When you combine youth, shallow depth and a brutal early slate, it’s no surprise the Illini slogged to a 2-7 start.

Yet the docket softened with tilts against UNLV and East Tennessee State, and perhaps De La Rosa and Alan Griffin can earn some minutes, allowing Underwood to roll bodies through. The Illini also have (recent) history working in their favor.

The Scout

NCAA Basketball: Ohio State at Illinois Quinn Harris-USA TODAY Sports

The Starters

Position Missouri (7-3) Illinois (4-7)
Position Missouri (7-3) Illinois (4-7)
PG Jordan Geist (Sr., 6-2, 180) Trent Frazier (So., 6-1, 170)
CG Mark Smith (So., 6-4, 220) Da'Monte Williams (So. 6-3, 200)
WING Javon Pickett (Fr., 6-4, 207) Aaron Jordan (Sr., 6-5, 210)
CF Kevin Puryear (Sr., 6-7, 238) Kipper Nichols (RJr., 6-6, 220)
POST Jeremiah Tilmon (So., 6-10, 250) Giorgi Bezhanishvili (Fr., 6-9, 235)

Note: These starting lineups are projected.

When Missouri has the ball...

Missouri Offense | Value the ball. Write that on the whiteboard in red dry-erase marker. Illinois’ transition offense — outside of Frazier leading the break — is pretty pedestrian. The bigger issue, as we’ve said countless times before, is it deprives MU of vital possessions. During their five-game homestand, the Tigers posted a 19.1 turnover percentage, per HoopLens data, and is around the national median. If you can withstand early pressure, there are middle drives available, and aggressive help rotations can lead to easy dishes to the short corner. We’ll see Jordan Geist, Xavier Pinson and, to a degree, Mark Smith can withstand the extended defense Illinois uses. At least so far, teams that force a ton of takeaways have dictated terms to the Tigers.

Assuming MU does withstand the heat, do they attack Illinois in the low block and test whether Illinois runs hard doubles at Tilmon? Or rather, how long might they stick with a traditional entry pass from the wing to the block and let Tilmon pound away? Bezhanishvili, as mentioned earlier, can pick up quick whistles. Kane has adequate length, but he needs some more strength to hold position. Do they use Nichols, who is smaller but might be quicker, to front Tilmon?

Applying pressure in the paint, and forcing help, is the ideal choke point. But MU can also use Horns sets, 1-4 flat looks or drag screens to utilize their bigs’ mobility, actions that also allow paint penetration, kickouts and spot-ups. Whatever the methods MU deploys, the objective is the same: make the Illini sit down and guard for extended periods.

Illinois Defense | For as often as the Illini literally swipe opportunty from their opponents, they give just as many back. First, they’re among the nation’s worst rebounding teams, allowing nearly 12 offensive rebounds per game. Second, they’re the sixth most foul-prone team in the country, per KenPom. On the season, the Illini’s opponents have attempted 110 more free throws — a gap of about 11 per game. Finally, if you can get to the rim, the Illini will rarely send back your shot and rank 241st nationally in defensive efficiency on those possessions.

Point being: Withstanding pressure renders the Illini pretty vulnerable.

No doubt, Frazier, Dosunmu and Feliz can wreak havoc in the passing lanes, and all of their guards are really sound at defending pick-and-rolls. Recovering and closing out on shooters, though? Three of Underwood’s stalwarts on the wing — Dosunmu, Williams and Frazier — are giving up 40-plus percent shooting beyond the 3-point line.

Some of these struggles might be part and parcel of mixing in newcomers. But Underwood’s system will also extend pressure to a three-quarter court press that’s much to disrupt timing as it is to force turnovers. Yet it can also narrow the margin for error. There might be disorganization while matching up. Extending ball pressure and having off-ball defenders farther on and up the line, a move to prevent easy ball reversals, creates more ground for help to cover. The lack of a true rim protector means the back side of your rotation endures stress — and yields whistles. And that reliance on help crashing down is a devil’s bargain: a solid passer has easy kick outs to spot-up shooters.

Missouri offense vs. Illinois defense

Team Adj. Eff. Poss Length eFG% TO% OR% FTA/FGA 3P% 2P% FT% Blk% Stl%
Team Adj. Eff. Poss Length eFG% TO% OR% FTA/FGA 3P% 2P% FT% Blk% Stl%
Missouri 106.1 (111) 18.9 (329) 51.0 (181) 20.3 (244) 31.4 (100) 33.8 (180) 38.6 (36) 46.2 (282) 67.2 (255) 8.5 (137) 8.6 (168)
Illinois 99.2 (94) 16.1 (29) 52.0 (218) 24.9 (6) 33.5 (314) 50.4 (345) 32.9 (138) 53.5 (267) 71.0 (233) 7.2 (245) 10.8 (56)

When Illinois has the ball...

Illinois Offense | When Underwood was on Frank Martin’s staff at Kansas State, several years of lobbying led up to the unveiling of an offense he’d started devising back in 2003. Today, his spread motion which uses Tex Winter’s fabled Triangle and Johnny Orr’s Pinwheel for its basic formatting, is one of the nation’s more vaunted schemes.

Using one alignment and two triggering steps, the Illini can craft any number of nifty actions, ranging from flare screens, pin downs, handoffs, staggers and lobs.

The offense’s hub is the pinch post — the weak-side elbow — and its conductor is a savvy big man. After a ball reversal and a series of guards cutting from the wing to the the block, the ball is moved that spot on the floor, setting up a two-man between the post and the guard. Those two players “read” the defense and each other and initiate an action. If that first action doesn’t pan out, Underwood’s built in scores of counters. At worst, the offense runs through and resets in the original alignment.

The system’s plethora of cuts, intricate footwork, precise timing and proper spacing takes time to master. But once its ingrained, Underwood’s wrinkles and his players’ chemistry makes it difficult for opposing staffs to build a sheet of play calls to scout. For young groups, though, success comes in spurts.

Right now, Frazier’s the most dependable asset at Underwood’s disposal. The sophomore is savvy when operating in pick-and-rolls, inclined to kick to ball out when attacking from the drop of key and dishing to a rolling big man when playing on the right side of the floor. He’s also knocking down 43.8 percent of his 3-point attempts.

Dosunmu, for his part, owns elite tools, but transitioning to the high-major level and trying to master the nuances of Underwood’s system creates some lags. (For example, his vision and instincts in two-man games made him a coveted prospect, but Dosunmu is posting just 0.712 PPP in pick-and-rolls.) While the Morgan Park product is also suited to play in transition, he’s only converting 47.8 percent of his shots at the rim. The bright spot: his revamped jumper is helping him connect at a 41.7 percent clip from 3-point range.

The other members of Illinois’ backcourt are one-note players. Williams and Jordan are floor spacers. Feliz, who’s poise while playing fast was alluring to Underwood, has battled turnover woes. Along the front line, post-ups are scarce. Bezhanishvilli is more prone to pick-and-pop, as is Nichols.

Missouri Defense | The premise of Underwood’s offense is that it basically keeps every inch of hardwood below the free-throw line empty, while leveraging one side of the floor. By making his offense read-based, you can’t scout sets and build a deep call sheet. The onus falls on your defenders to communicate, to switch cleanly and for your help-side defenders to be engaged. Bezhanishvili’s comfort and dexterity playing on the perimeter also poses a test for Tilmon and whether he can avoid whistles that force him to take a seat.

There is the option to switch all screens, but that risks putting a big in a precarious position of matching up with a guard in space. Some teams have occasionally changed defenses and used zone to throw off timing.

Illinois offense vs. Missouri defense

Team Adj. Eff. Poss Length eFG% TO% OR% FTA/FGA 3P% 2P% FT% Blk% Stl%
Team Adj. Eff. Poss Length eFG% TO% OR% FTA/FGA 3P% 2P% FT% Blk% Stl%
Illinois 106.6 (100) 16.9 (136) 51.5 (158) 19.7 (208) 31.2 (105) 27.2 (299) 38.7 (34) 47.4 (255) 68.4 (210) 9.8 (207) 8.3 (138)
Missouri 97.6 (74) 18.3 (330) 49.1 (128) 20.0 (129) 26.1 (80) 30.3 (100) 34.4 (200) 47.4 (88) 62.8 (23) 5.5 (317) 8.2 (215)

The Match-Up

NCAA Basketball: Gonzaga at Illinois Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Trent Frazier | Point Guard

Year Ht./Wt. Pts. Reb. Ast. FG% 3FG% FT% ORTG eFG% TS%
Year Ht./Wt. Pts. Reb. Ast. FG% 3FG% FT% ORTG eFG% TS%
So. 6-1/170 15.4 2.4 3.4 43.3 43.8 78.6 111.1 55.0 57.8
KenPom; Sports Reference

A year ago, Trent Frazier was just another freshman finding his way.

Over the season’s first 10 games, the point guard was averaging a shade under six points and shooting roughly 36 percent from the floor. His breakout, though, came against UNLV, where he tallied 16 points. He followed it up with 20-point outing against Longwood — the start of run that saw him reach double figures in 19 of the Illini’s final 22 games.

Now there’s little question who headlines scouting reports, and who Underwood expects to be reference point for a roster featuring six freshmen. Chief among the duties, seamlessly shifting between priming the offense with his scoring touch, which balances attacking out of ball screens and canning 3-pointers, and facilitating touches elsewhere on the roster.

The presence of Dosunmu and Feliz makes that easier, too. At times, Underwood can put three point guards on the floor, offloading ball-handling duties elsewhere by simply manipulating his personnel.

When the ball is in Frazier’s hands, he’s more prone to throw breaks on after turning the corner and put up a mid-range jumper than attack the rim, where he’s only 6 of 18 for the season. If that pull-up isn’t available, Frazier will often pitch the ball out to shooters. Off the ball, Frazier’s a guy you have to sit on. He’s made 15 of 20 catch-and-shoot jumpers this season, which is far more efficient than his work attacking closeouts, which only yield 0.43 PPP.

Last season, Frazier racked up 22 points, including a 10 of 11 performance from the charity stripe, off the bench to propel the Illini to a victory. This time around, Mizzou won’t be flatfooted, and the man tasked with tracking the might be the many Illini fans expected to occupy Frazier’s role — Mark Smith.

The X Factor

NCAA Basketball: Illinois at Missouri Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

How do a pair of young teams react to the environment?

Compare the rosters for this year’s edition of Braggin’ Rights to those from a year ago. All of Illinois’ starters are gone — one of whom switched sides. For Mizzou, Tilmon and Kevin Puryear are the lone returnees. Finally, when you look at the current rotations for each squad, there’s the potential for up to 11 underclassmen to see action.

The lack of continuity in minutes and young players settling into roles injects uncertainty.

There’s also the obvious storyline: three players who initially pledged loyalty to Illinois opted to suit up for Missouri, while freshmen Torrence Watson is playing in his home city. How will Tilmon, Mark Smith and Javon Pickett respond to have a building that deems them traitors?

For Underwood and Martin, the Enterprise Center will be simultaneously neutral and the most hostile building their teams have set foot in all season. Who can channel that energy and ride the crest?

I’ve never believed you toss the records out in rivalry games. During the Kim Anderson era, Missouri could have all the heart and desire it could muster, and it wasn’t getting around the obvious fact that Illinois had a better roster and a comparatively better coach.

On paper, I think MU deserves to be a slight favorite, but I can’t predict how college kids loathed by one fanbase and adored by another will respond. I don’t know which team is farther alone its developmental path. And I don’t know which coach will display better acumen to tip the balance their way.

KenPom predicts...

Missouri 71, Illinois 70 | I’ll be bold: the losing streak ends. Last season, Illinois’ pressure dictated the pace long enough and bled enough possessions from Missouri to get a win. I tend to think the Tigers’ staff and the players who were on the floor — Geist, Puryear and Tilmon — didn’t forget the onslaught they endure early on. Illinois pressure and its offense can be stressful, but I think MU wrestles the tempo to its liking and sands down the Illini in the halfcourt.