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Illini capable of using multiple offensive approaches

Jan. 11—CHAMPAIGN — Brad Underwood let his Illinois men's basketball team play through its early offensive struggles last Friday night at Purdue.

The top-ranked Boilermakers had the Illini out of rhythm offensively. What worked so well just three days prior in a 96-66 blowout of Northwestern just didn't against Purdue. Zach Edey dorking Ty Rodgers was the proverbial monkey wrench in Illinois' offensive plans and forced the Illini into essentially playing 4-on-5.

It's a defensive strategy Underwood said he expected from the Boilermakers and one No. 10 Illinois had seen previously this season. Kansas tried the same with 7-foot-2 center Hunter Dickinson in the team's charity exhibition game in October, and Rodgers handled it.

Edey provided a different challenge. All 7-4 of him occupying space in the paint Illinois needed to generate offense.

"You find your balance," Underwood said. "Sometimes you've got to call (timeouts) a lot quicker. I've had games in my past where I've burnt all my timeouts in the first half to try to get a change or try to figure out the lineups.

"Sometimes it's a momentum thing. Sometimes it's a lineup thing. Sometimes it's an execution thing."

Illinois (11-3, 2-1 Big Ten) was able to shift gears in the second half at Purdue with Justin Harmon in Rodgers' place in a shooter-heavy lineup. It's a move not all of Underwood's Illini teams could have made. That this one can is a primary reason Illinois ranks among the top 10 teams nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency heading into the 8 p.m. Thursday game against Michigan State (9-6, 1-3) at State Farm Center.

"We found some lineups, especially in the second half, that we felt really, really good with," Underwood said about the Purdue game. "Luke (Goode) was shooting the cover off it, and we know Justin's been on a pretty good run. We went to our five-out package to change momentum. We got away from the 'booty ball' stuff a little bit, and that really got us back into it."

What Illinois can do offensively this season — at least in terms of finding different ways to be successful — is reminiscent of Underwood's lone Oklahoma State team. The Cowboys had the No. 1 offense in the country led by a dominant point guard in Jawun Evans, plenty of shooting on the wing with Jeffrey Carroll, Phil Forte III and Davon Dillard all shooting at least 42 percent from three-point range and a couple lower usage, but still productive forwards in Leyton Hammonds and Mitchell Solomon.

Underwood has tapped into a similar level of offensive versatility this season at Illinois. That wasn't the case during his first two seasons with the Illini when they "couldn't do anything offensively" or during the Kofi Cockburn era when everything ran through the All-American center.

"It was a little different when you had 7-foot in the paint," Goode said. "This year, it is nice to have that five-out aspect — especially when you have five shooters out there. I mean, who are you going to guard? You've got capable guys that are standing on the three-point line. You can't help. You can't double. What are you going do do? It's pick your poison."

Goode credited Illinois' offensive success this season with how the offense has evolved.

"Booty ball" with Marcus Domask has become a dominant talking point — particularly with the 6-6 guard averaging 29 points in two games last week — but it wasn't a major part of the Illini offense this season until early December.

Another turning point, which both Goode and Underwood credited, was Coleman Hawkins both getting healthy and starting to knock down shots. The 6-10 forward is making 44 percent of his three-pointers in his last six games after shooting just 14 percent in his first five.

"We have veteran guys who can pick things up if we make subtle changes," Underwood said. "That's a tribute to our players. A lot of that is stemming from Coleman — a pick-and-pop 5 who can shoot it and space the floor. Teams have to adjust. Then having multiple guards who can post it and spacing it with shooters. If we don't like that, we spent all summer working on some five-out motion. We went to it in the Purdue game, and it was good for us."