Heat Checks and Hail Marys – The "Joy" of Coaching

Mike Cagley, Sports Spectacular & Big Sports Radio Co-Host

Cover photo courtesy of Joe Clark, IlliniGuys

February 13, 2024

Da'Monte Williams courtesy Joe Clark, IlliniGuys

During the tenure of Brad Underwood as head coach of the Fighting Illini men's basketball program, he has been famous for putting defense first. Yet, even as the Illini have built the best record in Big Ten games over the past four seasons, Illini fans have expressed frustration as players like Da'Monte Williams play ahead of potential scorers like Brandin Podziemski (just to pick a "random" name). It has been a recurring theme amongst a segment of the fanbase.

Harken back to two years ago, when the Illini lost in overtime at home to Purdue, 96-88. Fans were amazed that Williams played 45 minutes and only scored 3 points. At the same time, his defense was a key to the Illini being in the game until the end. Even overmatched in height, Da'Monte would contribute mightily to the success of his Illini teams. At barely 6’3”, Williams would often guard fours, outrebound his taller opponents and provide the Illini with the ability to get stops when they were needed most. Even though Williams’ final year was not loaded with many high scoring games, his contributions on the court for steals, tipped passes, and hustling for loose balls made a massive difference and added to Illini success.

While playing Williams, Coach Underwood took a lot of heat from Illini fans for not being willing to put someone on the floor who could change the game on the offensive end. Underwood was resolute in putting defense and rebounding – two traits Underwood says “travel” - ahead of the team needs on offense. Many Illini fans didn’t like the decision, especially when the Illini offense looked anemic. Fans got downright angry when the Illini offense looked anemic AND the Illini lost.

Guess what? The shoe is on the other foot now. Or as Darth Vader so aptly said, “The circle is now complete.”

A subsection of Illini fans is now mad that Coach Underwood is playing 3-point sharpshooter Luke Goode too many minutes at the end of games and would prefer that Ty Rodgers should play more due to his intense defense and rebounding skills. One has to realize that at 6'6" or 6'7", Rodgers has some defensive advantages that Williams didn't have - and both Illini players have that " attack dog" attitude that makes opponents wish another Illini player were guarding them. In defense of Goode, he's a good help defender and does a nice job on the boards, but he cannot guard bigger fours as well as Rodgers.

The Illini are coming off an OT win against Nebraska where the Illini were outscored 11-1 after leading 72-62 against Nebraska and a loss to Michigan State after being outscored 22-8 after leading 72-64. Fans are frustrated as the offense collapsed at the end of both games and the defense certainly wasn’t “ironclad” down the stretch run, either. With these games being the most recent, there are Illini fans who are beginning to think another defensive threat would be just what the Illini need.

Ty Rodgers courtesy Joe Clark, IlliniGuys

Trust is an interesting dynamic and a lack of it drives some degree of this fan behavior. A segment of Illini fans doesn’t seem to trust in Underwood's late game decisions. Despite rescuing Illini basketball from exile on the Island of National Irrelevancy (as a result of Groce’s tenure), this segment of Illini fans isn’t truly willing to believe in Coach Underwood until an NCAA run happens, regardless of the success experienced during Big Ten play.

Logic doesn't always rule the heart and minds of fans. Consider tonight's opponent, the Michigan basketball program. Even as Juwan Howard’s tenure has trended downwards at Michigan, there are Wolverine fans (and highly placed university supporters) who point to his Elite Eight and Sweet Sixteen runs as reasons to believe Coach Howard can elevate Michigan’s basketball program. Clearly a Sweet Sixteen or Elite Eight run is now "mandatory" to satisfy some Illini fans when it comes to Coach Underwood's credibility. And they aren't inclined to wait much longer. This March it is expected.

The Illini have been very consistent after Underwood infused the roster with both talent and set his own expectations on the team for performance and effort. Observe the Illini record after 23 games for this year and the prior 4 seasons:

  • 2023-24 – 17 wins and 6 losses
  • 2022-23 – 16 wins and 7 losses
  • 2021-22 – 17 wins and 6 losses
  • 2020-21 – 17 wins and 6 losses
  • 2019-20 – 16 wins and 7 losses

If that isn't the model of consistency, I don't know what is. Yet, finishing the season well is the goal of Coach Underwood and his staff. Only time will tell if Underwood leans into the offensive spacing and high points per possession this Illini team has shown to be very capable of executing. If he decides offensive advantages are the best way to win, we may see Luke Goode keep playing in late game situations. If Goode shoots at the percentages he is capable of, the missed shots will be reduced, and Illini fans will have less reason to get fired up – win or lose.

From a leadership perspective, the solution may be Underwood deciding to lean into the strengths of his roster. It would be a different move than he’s made in the past, but the roster is not the same as in past seasons. It is ironic that the season when fans have changed their minds and prefer defense, the staff may decide to push the chips into the offensive side of the equation - only to find the fan base prefers decisions that angered them in recent seasons.

Luke Goode courtesy Illinois Athletics

Conversely, Underwood may decide to go with more of a defensive posture – similar to what he has coached to in past years. Ty Rodgers and his uncanny ability to rebound, defend with intensity and provide a pressure valve when defenders load up against Domask on the perimeter could be the direction to embrace. It would be equally ironic for the fans to now agree with that line of logic after rejecting it in the past. No coach can keep the entire fan base happy. This is part of the "joy" of coaching. Of course, I doubt Coach Underwood worries about this very much. Now, we have an illustration of why he doesn't worry about such things.

There's a chance Coach Underwood could choose the idiosyncratic approach - and make the decision based on each individual game's data and his own feel for each contest - loading up for defense one game and offense in another. Intuitive decisions like that have the potential to make fans go crazy - especially after a loss. Then again, a better way to frame the decision is to put both Goode and Rodgers in positions to succeed and with solid play, they can take turns at being the hero after Illini wins, depending upon the circumstances. I must confess, I enjoy a bit of chaos and unpredictability, so I'll vote for this approach. An unpredictable Underwood keeps opposing coaches, teams (and all fans) guessing as to what the Illini will do in each contest. Go with the momentum on any given game and have some fun!

Whatever decision is made, there is no "right" choice for the staff to make. For some, the judgment on “right” or “wrong” will be made when the Illini move forward to the Sweet Sixteen or even further.

There are circumstances where it’s not the choice a leader makes that determines how they’re viewed as a leader. It's not even "how" the decision is implemented that matters, either. There are moments where the judgment of success or failure lies only in the result. Successful coaches make the decisions that lead to successful teams. This is one of those moments. Even if the fans are unable commit to one approach or the other. Winning is the only way to win all fans over. Style points on how it is done make for a great discussion on Twitter/X but long ago coaches have learned style points only work when a "W" is in the result column.

There is one positive for everyone involved - coaches, fans and players. This Illini team is really talented. Placing too much emphasis on the results of a single elimination tournament carries a high degree of risk, and in doing so, one should at least admit the program is in much better shape than when Underwood was hired. How the wins come is secondary to achieving them and building the team for a tourney run is key. Here's to hoping a tourney run will help lay to rest questions from a critical segment of the Illini fan base (and as a bonus make Twitter/X more enjoyable for the planet as a whole).

There is a quote that all sides would likely agree with.  Chuck Yeager, the first pilot to break the sound barrier (born this day in 1923) once said, "At the moment of truth, there are either reasons or results."

For his part, I expect Brad Underwood will keep coaching with the sole focus on winning each game. Like most successful coaches, he eliminates distractions and focuses on results. Regardless of the swinging pendulum of Illini fan base opinion, the Illini are zeroing in on cracking the code to unlock a deep NCAA tournament run. Winning is the true Joy of Coaching! Trying to satisfy fan desires in the heat of the moment is not.

Michigan plays the Illini at State Farm Center tonight at 6 pm central on Peacock.

Remember, the "I on the Illini" podcast will be released soon after the game. Subscribe or check the front page of IlliniGuys.com to listen.

Go Illini!

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