College Basketball
How Marcus Domask found the perfect fit with Brad Underwood, Illinois
College Basketball

How Marcus Domask found the perfect fit with Brad Underwood, Illinois

Updated Mar. 28, 2024 1:44 a.m. ET

Back in October, as he was walking out of the Target Center at Big Ten Media Day, I asked Brad Underwood what the key was going to be for his team this season. The seventh-year Illinois head coach spoke about a number of things surrounding his program, which he had led to three straight NCAA Tournament appearances, but he lit up when discussing one player.

"By January and February, people are going to be talking about just how great of a player and person Marcus Domask is," Underwood told FOX Sports. 

Fast-forward five months, and Underwood, Domask and the rest of the Illini are still alive in the Big Dance. For the first time since 2005, Illinois men's basketball is in the Sweet 16, and Domask is a huge reason for the breakthrough. 

While Terrence Shannon Jr. was the proclaimed Batman of this Illini team and has delivered in that role, averaging a whopping 30 points per game over the last six contests, the question of who would be his Robin has been answered by the 6-foot-6 fifth-year senior wing. Domask, who transferred to Illinois after four years at Southern Illinois, is averaging 16.1 points, 5.0 rebounds and 4.0 assists per game this season while making a seamless transition from the Missouri Valley Conference to the Big Ten, something that even Underwood did not see coming this quickly.


"He's exceeded expectations, and I was high on him then [in October]," Underwood said. "We've created a way to not just let him excel, but make his teammates better because of him. I've been really impressed with his professionalism, his commitment to work and his ability to adapt to everything we've thrown at him. And that's been a lot. 

"We started out the year, and he was at the wing spot, and now he's at the point guard spot. He's just been above and beyond with the way he's handled everything. He's a professional in terms of his approach. His commitment to recovery, the weight room and his gym time, that commitment has been sensational." 

The way Underwood has schemed to get Domask in advantageous positions on the offensive end of the court is by posting him up with what he has termed "booty ball." It's something that the Illini head coach used when referencing former All-American and Penn State star Jalen Pickett and how he played in three Nittany Lions' wins over the Illini last season. 

The move was sparked by a conversation with Jay Wright, who utilized the concept with Jalen Brunson, Mikal Bridges, and Josh Hart on the Villanova national title runs in 2016 and 2018. By adapting and tinkering, Underwood has Illinois in the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament for the first time in close to two decades. The move was easy to make with Domask, who has gone from a wing to more of a traditional point guard in Illinois' offense. Underwood referred to Domask's feel and poise for the game as extraordinary, and he credited Domask's coach at Southern Illinois, Bryan Mullins, for the way he came to Champaign. 

Marcus Domask drops 16 points & 10 rebounds in Illinois' victory over Indiana

"We saw him do some of that at Southern Illinois, but the full-time move was more about creating matchups, and it was just working with him," Underwood said. "We knew he had the skill set to do it, but it was more a matter of finding the time and opportunity for him to master it. We've done that at practice, and he's been so diligent in doing all of those things."

Domask credits his dad, Dan, who coached him and his older brother Mason at Waupun High School in Wisconsin, for the versatility aspect of his game. Marcus led the school to its first-ever state championship as a freshman. As a senior, he broke the school's all-time scoring record, previously held by Mason, and was named Mr. Basketball in the state of Wisconsin. 

"I give my dad a lot of credit," said Domask, who has combined for 34 points, 17 assists and 14 rebounds in the first two games of Illinois' NCAA Tournament run. "My dad coached me ever since I was super young, and he always kind of talked to me … a phrase he always used was, ‘There's two positions. You're either on the bench or on the court.'

"He always just talked about how you want to be able to do as many things as possible to stay on the court and just be versatile. Obviously, I have some size, so I think he just did a really good job of coaching me on all aspects of the game. I think that was just one thing that he really coached me in." 

In the atmosphere of the transfer portal, something that Underwood refers to as "speed dating," it's harder for coaches to identify the correct talent for their program. So, how does Underwood go about identifying players in the portal?

"Character has always been the first and foremost thing," he said. "Talent is secondary. Obviously, you've got to be a good player to play in the Big Ten and for us, but it's the character piece. We've got to have great teammates, and we dive deep on all of that. And also, we're very honest with guys on what we expect from them. And for that reason, that honesty is why it has worked." 

Being the son of a coach has made Domask's transition to Big Ten basketball easier, and it has also led to the Illini guard being really coachable. That is what has allowed Domask to find a home in Champaign, because of the style that Underwood coaches with. 

"He treats us more as a professional team than a college team," Domask said of Underwood, who is making his first Sweet 16 trip in his 11-year head coaching career. "We're an older team, and he kind of … he allows us to be more player-led than coach-led. He gives us that leeway to kind of control our own destiny and how we operate some things. He puts a lot of trust in us. I think just the trust he's put in us just kind of reflects our trust in him, and it's just kind of a two-way street." 

That two-way street has led the Illini to a Thursday night clash with Iowa State (10:09 p.m. ET, TBS), the nation's No. 1 defense, according to KenPom, while Underwood's squad boasts the No. 1 offense in the country. 

"You wanna tell Miami that? Look where they ended up last year," Underwood said, in reference to those who look at his team's No. 92 ranking in defensive efficiency. "I believe we're a good defensive team, too. I trust we'll show it on this stage." 

What is for certain is that the moment is not too big for Domask, who has been a fitting addition to a program that's been starving for a second-weekend NCAA Tournament trip for quite some time.

John Fanta is a national college basketball broadcaster and writer for FOX Sports. He covers the sport in a variety of capacities, from calling games on FS1 to serving as lead host on the BIG EAST Digital Network to providing commentary on The Field of 68 Media Network. Follow him on Twitter @John_Fanta.


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