A text message arrived recently on the phones of Illinois assistant coach Stephen Gentry and Baylor assistant John Jakus.
It was a picture of the top three teams in the AP poll – Gonzaga, Baylor and Illinois – sent by Bulldogs assistant Tommy Lloyd. It’s a tad outdated after Illinois and Baylor swapped spots in the final AP poll released Monday, but the prideful message still got across.
“Tommy said that a smart man would hire Jorge (Sanz) next,” said Jakus, referring to Gonzaga’s current director of basketball operations following in the footsteps of Gentry (2018-2019) and Jakus (2015-17).
It has certainly worked out well for Gonzaga, Baylor and Illinois, all No. 1 seeds and NCAA Tournament favorites with the Zags leading the way at 2/1.
They stay in touch, as coaches with close ties tend to do, whether it’s a text or a quick call. Jakus and Zags head coach Mark Few chatted on the phone for 30 minutes during quarantine in Indianapolis. Gentry texted Jakus weeks ago, asking about a specific inbounds play.
“Brian Michaelson (Gonzaga assistant) and I call or text every single day, Tommy once or twice a week, bouncing ideas off each other or catching up,” Gentry said.
It’s quite possible the three programs could end up in each other’s path to a national championship. No. 1 seeds have won 11 of the past 15 NCAA tournaments, five of those with title-game victories over another No. 1 seed.
“I thought it was awesome (seeing the programs ranked 1-2-3),” Lloyd said. “You could say it’s random, but you could also say we all spent a lot of time together talking basketball, concepts, techniques, style of play.
“I think John and Stephen, you can definitely see their fingerprints on those programs. I’m not saying it’s Gonzaga-driven, but a lot of those conversations we’ve had in the office or on the road when we’re talking about the right way to play, I don’t think it’s a coincidence.”
Jakus sees numerous parallels between the programs, beginning with the return of key players who had declared for the NBA draft. The list included Gonzaga’s Corey Kispert and Joel Ayayi, Illinois’ Ayo Dosunmu and Kofi Cockburn, and Baylor’s Jared Butler and MaCio Teague.
Every one of those players has received all-conference and/or All-America recognition. Five outlets have named Butler, Dosunmu and Kispert first-team All-America.
“I think there’s a cultural similarity that when you leave Gonzaga you take it with you,” said Jakus, who helped steer former Zags walk-on Rem Bakamus to Baylor as a graduate assistant three years ago. “People that love each other and players that fit are more important than talent sometimes. When you get both, you can end up with all three teams tops in the country.”
Head coach Scott Drew has always directed Baylor’s offense and Jakus provides input. The Bears put up 84.4 points per game, third nationally. They rank third in KenPom’s offensive metrics. Gonzaga is No. 1 in both categories.
“Our tempo is faster than it’s been in a while, reflective of Illinois and Gonzaga,” Jakus said. “Our ball-screen reads and the way we play in space is reflective of Illinois and Gonzaga, the way we run and where our bigs are on the floor. … For sure, the three of us share the ball screen and transition increases. We rely a bit more on the 3-point shot. We all shoot 60% at the rim, but they’re doing it a little differently with (Drew) Timme and Cockburn.”
The Bears had a watch party last Saturday when Grand Canyon, coached by Drew’s brother Bryce, earned a spot in March Madness. Lloyd’s son, Liam, is a GCU freshman guard.
“Rem and I sent Tommy a group text after they clinched the bid,” Jakus said.
Gentry joined Brad Underwood’s staff at Illinois two years ago after previous stints with Underwood at Oklahoma State and Stephen F. Austin.
Gentry pored over game tape and analytics in the offseason and helped oversee major changes to the offense. Some of the changes – shifting from a pinch-post offense to ball-screen packages – were implemented during the 2020 season, but they’ve truly taken root this year.
Illinois was 83rd in KenPom’s offensive efficiency the year before Gentry’s arrival. It moved up to 38th last season and currently ranks seventh.
“I came up with an offensive checklist, almost like a lesson plan, how to install everything from A to Z and we really attacked it,” said Gentry, a former Zags walk-on who now calls the Fighting Illini’s plays.
Much of the instruction came during countless Zoom calls with COVID-19 interrupting the ability to practice. The staff didn’t let any mistakes slide when the team was finally able to practice.
“We weren’t even adding plays, it was all ball-screen concepts and different spacing against different types of coverages,” Gentry said. “That’s kind of the gift that keeps giving. Now that we’ve added set plays, we have solutions for every type of coverage.
“I think that’s why when you watch us play, our flow is so much better. Last year, we didn’t have great spacing and the ball would stick.”
Gentry said Illinois has versatile forwards in the mold of former Zag Killian Tillie, who Gentry called an “all-time problem solver.”
“To tie it back into Gonzaga, that was what was so good for me going back for those two years,” he said. “I was with Brad for four years. I knew his system and what he wanted to do. We’ve reinvented ourselves on both sides of the ball.
“We don’t have a single play call the same as Gonzaga. It’s more of the concepts that I was around there. It’s funny how things work out, that was the reason to go back for two years and see another style. It’s just been an unbelievable resource.”
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