Big Ten

Five takeaways from Brad Underwood's introduction as new Illini basketball coach

Five takeaways from Brad Underwood's introduction as new Illini basketball coach

Illinois introduced its new head men's basketball coach Monday afternoon, Brad Underwood taking the stage as John Groce's successor after an underachieving five years.

Underwood is getting rave reviews from those in the know, even if he isn't the most familiar name to folks in Big Ten Country. His uptempo style gives the Fighting Illini an identity, something athletics director Josh Whitman was looking to do with this hire, much like he was trying to do with the football program when he hired Lovie Smith.

There was plenty to digest from Whitman and Underwood's approximately 45-minute presser in Champaign, but here are five of the biggest takeaways from Monday's introduction.

Underwood is enamored by Illinois basketball

Underwood spent 10 seasons as an assistant coach at Western Illinois and got very familiar with Illinois' basketball tradition and the program's fervent fan base in the state.

Of course, it helped that during Underwood's time at Western, the Illini were going through some of their most glorious days, and he got to experience that atmosphere at what was then still called Assembly Hall. Western went to Champaign to play Illinois once during the Lon Kruger Era, twice during the Bill Self Era and once during the Bruce Weber Era, a total of four trips in five years.

Perhaps seeing the arena at its most rocking — that last game came the season before Illinois' run to the national championship game — Underwood got the feeling that this was what big-time college hoops was all about.

"I spent 10 years in this state from 1993 to 2003, and at that time I learned how important the Illini Nation was and how powerful. And basketball was special here," Underwood said. "We came in here and took a few whoopings in here when I was at Western with (Kruger and Self) coaching.

"When this arena's full, it's one of the greatest home courts ever. It's impactful."

Underwood even had a great anecdote about how his son's first basketball jersey was that of former Illini great Brian Cook.

Whitman didn't hire a former Illinois player or a former Illinois assistant or someone with close ties to the school and its past. But it seems that he did the next best thing in bringing in someone who had a first-hand experience of those glory days, which is where Whitman wants to program to return.

"He cares a lot about the University of Illinois, and he wants to be here," Whitman said. "We want people who want to be a part of the Fighting Illini family, who understand and embrace the great tradition, the great opportunity that we have in Illinois basketball and in Fighting Illini athletics. This place is special, and we want people here who understand how special it is. And we found one of those people in Brad Underwood."

Whitman found another believer

It's becoming increasingly clear that despite the positive hires of Underwood and Smith, Illinois' greatest asset continues to be Whitman.

A little more than a year ago, when Whitman introduced Smith as the school's new football coach, Smith kept talking about how good a job Whitman did of selling him on the future of Illini athletics and his belief that the football program could become a winning one.

Well, consider Underwood the latest believer in Whitman's vision for Illinois.

"His pride in this university is incredible, and that exudes and that resonates," Underwood said. "I have tremendous value in that, I put tremendous stock in that. He didn't have to sell me. As soon as I found out (Illinois was interested), there wasn't (any selling needed). But the 'we will win'? That's what I'm about.

"It's important. When you have your boss believe that and the commitment that they make to being successful in all sports, that's very, very important. And I didn't need any more than that. I knew the history, I knew the tradition, I knew the great players, I knew how good this conference is.

"That's the reason."

Underwood uttered that last sentence while pointing at his new athletics director.

It was perhaps an important insight into why Underwood left Oklahoma State after just one season, as it was reported that the relationship with the athletics director there wasn't the best and was perhaps the main reason he departed.

But just like Whitman sold Smith on committing to Illinois, he's done the same with Underwood. And now he's completely reshaped the two biggest programs in his department in a little more than a year.

Underwood's style is coming to Illinois

It certainly seems that the most notable difference to this program will come on the court, where Underwood's teams have played and won with a fast-paced, high-scoring, defensively intense style of play over the past three seasons.

For three years at Stephen F. Austin and this past season at Oklahoma State, Underwood's teams have scored a whole mess of points, done it really fast and done it with a lot of effort on the defensive end of the floor.

"I like to play uptempo," Underwood said. "I like to play in your face defensively. I like to take advantage, on the offensive end, of every option that's available. We weren't the biggest team in the country at Stephen F. Austin, in fact, we were one of the smallest. We weren't the biggest team at Oklahoma State, yet we've always been one of the top rebounding teams. We were top 10 in the country in offensive rebounding this year, we were one of the top free-throw shooting teams in the country. All ways to score other than just through offense.

"Like to play fast, we were one of the best teams in the country in scoring in the first seven seconds (of the shot clock). We were a very good shooting team. There will be a certain skill set that we will recruit to. But we are very committed to a style of play. The one thing I know we will have is we will have an identity on both sides of the court. And starts with a great foundation, and we will build from there. We might have to tweak some things here or there based on personnel, but we're going to be a team that plays with a lot of passion and shows up to work every single day."

That should be a mighty noticeable change for Illini fans. Not that Groce's teams didn't play with great effort and intensity, but Underwood's style is very obviously different from that of other teams. He was an assistant under Bob Huggins, still in the NCAA tournament thanks to "Press Virginia," and Frank Martin, whose South Carolina team just defensively flustered the heck out of Duke to punch a ticket to the Sweet Sixteen.

"I like the thought of not allowing teams to do what they practice every single day. If I can take them out of it, I think I can beat them," Underwood said. "Analytics play a big part of what we do on the offensive end. The game is changing. ... I've taken a lot of what I've learned from other people and tried to make it fit my personality."

"There's a sense of toughness that scares people, to be quite honest. I think it comes from a commitment from the head coach to work on (the defensive) end and to emphasize that. ... Huggs is a Hall of Fame coach. His teams are physical, and that's a big part of what we do in terms of getting our athletes in the weight room, helping them become the best athletes they can be. We'll lay a foundation, and we'll do everything we can to become that as quickly as we can."

That could be quite quick, actually, as Underwood was able to morph Oklahoma State into his kind of team in just one year being there. After ranking 303rd in scoring offense the season before he arrived, the Cowboys were the No. 6 scoring team in the country this season.

"There's no question that Brad Underwood's teams have a strong identity," Whitman said. "It's built on toughness, it's built on intensity, there's a tenacity to the way his teams play that resonates very strongly with me and I think will resonate very strongly with our fans. I'm excited about seeing those teams take the court. That bleeds into their style of play. They move fast, they're aggressive, they get in your face on defense, they get the shot up. It was fun to think about Brad Underwood teams being out here on the State Farm Center court, watching the way they get up and down the floor, watching the way they compete, watching the emotion and the excitement and the enthusiasm about wearing the orange and blue."

Underwood is ready to recruit the state of Illinois

Rightly or wrongly, the Illinois head-coaching position seems to be judged by the public on how well a coach can recruit the Chicago area.

Obviously there's no argument that Chicago produces some of the best if not the best high school basketball talent in the country. But why geography alone should make Illinois expected to compete with the likes of Duke, Kentucky and Kansas on the recruiting trail has always been a bit of a mystery.

Anyway, Underwood laid out his commitment to recruiting the whole state of Illinois, suggesting that not just Chicago but the entire Land of Lincoln does things differently than other states across the country, giving those who recruit throughout the state an advantage in the kind of player they're getting.

"Every young person in this state that played basketball grew up wanting to be a part of this," Underwood said. "I thought I was from a basketball state, I really did, in Kansas, where I grew up. Nothing like this. This is the best high school basketball in the country, it's got great coaches, it's got great talent, and the fan support and the community support was just something that made a huge impact on me. To go to a high school game on a Tuesday or Friday night and see towns shut down and everybody there. At the time, I came here to see state tournaments and see this arena packed, made a huge impact.

"There's no question that this state produces a lot of elite talent. And we're the University of Illinois. Chicago, downstate, wherever, we want the best players in this state to come to this university. We're going to do everything we can to recruit those players. Keeping players at home is a vital part of any program's success. But here we have a plethora of good players, and keeping them here is very, very important to us.

"You all may care if they're four-star of five-star (recruits). I don't. Recruiting to me is like beauty, it's in the eye of the beholder. And it's about putting pieces of a puzzle together and the identity you create and the passion. We always recruit here (in Illinois) because of how well these young men are coached. There's tremendous high school coaching here. That doesn't happen everywhere. You take it for granted because you're here. Believe me, it doesn't happen everywhere. And so when you can get young people who are prepared and have been through the rigors of being coached and taught the fundamentals, that's pretty important to me."

Underwood, Whitman both envision big things

It's no surprise that an introductory press conference starting a new era of a program was going to be full of rosy language and visions of great success.

But Whitman's goal has been to bring this program back to what it was a decade ago, an era when the Illini came one win shy of winning the national championship.

The athletics director's "we will win" mantra, started over at the football program, has now migrated to basketball, as well, and a commitment to restoring winning traditions on both sides of Kirby Avenue is very apparent.

Whitman found a football partner in Smith, and he's found a basketball one now in Underwood.

"He's a proven winner," Whitman said. "And we tell people that the best predictor of future success is past performance. You look at what his teams have done, it is nothing short of remarkable. They set records in terms of their on-court performance. He's someone who develops players and develops programs. You look at the programs that he's come into, how they performed before they arrived and how they performed after, and it is remarkably different. And that's not a coincidence."

Will Underwood do that in Champaign?

When coaching changes occur at big programs, the word "elite" gets thrown around, and it was and remains difficult to suggest Illinois fits that description, a word used to describe the perennial championship contenders at Duke, North Carolina, Kentucky, Kansas, Michigan State and elsewhere.

But the right coach can transform a program into an elite one. Maybe Underwood can make that happen at Illinois.

"I've felt this was an elite program," Underwood said. "As Josh and I visited, that resonated with me. I use the term a lot — I dream big. It's a cliche that obviously I didn't come up with. But I do, I dream big. And I dream bigger. And winning a national championship is something that can happen here, and I want to be a part of that. I want to help lead this program to that.

"When you're at an elite program in an elite conference like the Big Ten — and obviously they're having a tremendous NCAA tournament — all things are possible. And that's something that I was drawn to."

See how they stack up: Week 12 college football top 25 rankings


See how they stack up: Week 12 college football top 25 rankings

With Week 12 in the books, here’s my top 25:

1. Oklahoma (10-1)

Still the team with the best resume in the country, no one can compete with OU’s wins over TCU, Ohio State and Oklahoma State, the latter two coming away from Norman. Baker Mayfield might not be a choir boy, but he’s the best player in the nation.

2. Miami (10-0)

You might think that being down 28-14 to Virginia in the second half was cringe-worthy, but the Canes made up for things by storming back with 30 unanswered points. Now they finally have to go away from South Florida for the first time since almost losing to North Carolina last month.

3. Alabama (11-0)

Tide gonna roll. But this Cupcake Weekend in the SEC has got to stop. While teams in other conferences are slugging it out against rivals, Bama gets to take a day off against Mercer? It’s just not fair. Also, Bama’s schedule is so soft, there’s no way it deserves to be the No. 1 team in the country.

4. Georgia (10-1)

The Dawgs should wrap an 11-1 regular season this weekend against Georgia Tech. But the SEC title game presents a kind of no-win scenario: undefeated Alabama or Auburn, who throttled Georgia earlier this month.

5. Wisconsin (11-0)

You didn’t need Wisconsin to do what it did to Iowa and Michigan to prove it had one of the best defenses in the country — but that sure didn’t help. Stockpiling national love with those two wins, a win in the Big Ten title game figures to make the Badgers a Playoff lock.

6. Clemson (10-1)

Why’d Kelly Bryant have to go and get hurt for that Syracuse game? The Tigers would be No. 1 and the undisputed best team in the country. Still, though, a win over Miami in the ACC title game ought to get the champs back into the Playoff.

7. Auburn (9-2)

Great job pounding Louisiana-Monroe, Tigers. You shall not escape the wrath over Cupcake Weekend in the SEC. That dumb game aside, Auburn and Alabama will meet in a titanic Iron Bowl this weekend with a trip to the SEC title game on the line — and perhaps a Playoff spot, as well.

8. Ohio State (9-2)

Not that pummeling Illinois is any big deal, but the Buckeyes are still alive in this thing and look like a team capable of making some Playoff noise. First, Ohio State has to win The Game and then the Big Ten title game to knock out undefeated Wisconsin.

9. Notre Dame (9-2)

Out of the Playoff chase thanks to that loss at Miami, Notre Dame squeaked by Navy this past weekend. Hope a New Year’s Six bowl game is enough for the Irish. We know it’s not enough for those ND fans. So maybe join a conference? Just saying.

10. TCU (9-2)

The Frogs can still make their mark on the Playoff race, even if they can’t get in themselves. The Big 12 title game will almost surely be TCU’s attempt at revenge on Oklahoma. Unfortunately, if revenge does come, it will probably cannibalize the conference’s Playoff hopes, too.

11. Penn State (9-2)

Why Penn State gave up 44 points to Nebraska, I do not know. What I do know is that probably no one cared because Penn State is going to go down as the most inconsequential 10-2 team of all-time. Such a bummer considering the preseason expectations for both the team and Saquon Barkley.

12. USC (10-2)

Yeah, I guess there’s still a way for USC to make the Playoff, but it’s hard to imagine that madness unfolding, even in the oft-mad college football. The Trojans get the winner of the Apple Cup in the Pac-12 title game.

13. UCF (10-0)

Finally we get our much-anticipated UCF-USF showdown this weekend. Make it count, Knights. This is probably gonna be Scott Frost’s last regular-season game in Orlando.

14. Washington (9-2)

It’s hard to say who has the edge in the Apple Cup, but certainly the stakes are high, with the winner going off to play USC in the Pac-12 title game. Can either team make the Playoff? Well, probably not, no.

15. Washington State (9-2)

Is this it for Mike Leach on The Palouse? He could be a hot candidate this offseason and leave for perceived greener pastures. Winning the Apple Cup would go a long way toward making that happen.

16. Mississippi State (8-3)

A win in the Egg Bowl means a 9-3 regular season for the Bulldogs with their three losses coming against three top-10 teams.

17. Oklahoma State (8-3)

Poor Okie State has been so good all year and had two losses to the two best teams in its conference, and then it went and lost to K-State for some ridiculous reason. The Mullet deserved better in 2017.

18. Northwestern (8-3)

The Cats are the fourth-best team in the Big Ten, simple as that, with wins over Michigan State and Iowa and conference losses to Wisconsin and Penn State. As commendable an effort as you’ll find in a highly competitive league. Plus, Fitz’s team is on a six-game win streak that could end up extending to eight.

19. Stanford (8-3)

Already with a win over Washington, Stanford could close the regular season with two wins over top-10 teams in its final three games. Also Bryce Love is back in the groove after back-to-back 100-yard games.

20. Memphis (9-1)

The Tigers have lost just one game all season, to the best Group of Five team out there. Heck of a season by Memphis.

21. Michigan State (8-3)

A 17-7 win over Maryland couldn't have been the most exciting way for anyone to spend their weekend. Sparty's had a mighty fine season, though, considering how badly things went in 2016.

22. LSU (8-3)

The SEC has seemingly gotten increasingly better as the year has progressed, with LSU and Mississippi State making for a solid-enough middle tier. But remember when LSU lost to Troy? That wasn’t good.

23. South Florida (9-1)

If not for that loss to Houston, USF’s showdown with UCF this weekend would be for Group of Five supremacy. Even without that, though, this should be a highly entertaining affair.

24. Virginia Tech (8-3)

The Hokies have a chance to salvage their tumble at the close of the season with a win at Virginia. But given how well the Cavs played at Miami this past weekend, a VT win is no sure thing.

25. Iowa State (7-4)

I understand the math and all, but can't the Big 12 just suspend its rules and send Iowa State to the title game? We all want to see the OU-ISU rematch. Why are you preventing us from being happy, Big 12?

See how they stack up: Week 11 college football top 25 rankings


See how they stack up: Week 11 college football top 25 rankings

With Week 11 in the books, here’s my top 25:

1. Oklahoma (9-1)

The Sooners probably won’t be No. 1 in the Playoff rankings, as the committee will almost surely move Bama up a notch. But OU has an incredible resume, one much better than the Tide’s, with wins over Ohio State, TCU and Okie State. No one in the country can compete with those wins.

2. Miami (9-0)

The Canes are too legit to quit after pulverizing Notre Dame on Saturday night. That signature win teamed with the prior week’s win over Virginia Tech makes that near loss to lowly North Carolina seem like forever ago. Welcome to Miami, indeed.

3. Alabama (10-0)

A great win on Saturday night by the Tide in what seemed like their first actual game of the season. The schedule has been soft as silk, but now Auburn’s status as an SEC juggernaut makes the Iron Bowl a colossal clash.

4. Georgia (9-1)

Knocked off the top of the college football mountain, the Dawgs still deserve to be in the Playoff field, just a one-loss team with that one loss coming to another top team and that still-excellent win at Notre Dame. The resume’s still there, but now the SEC title game will be for all the marbles.

5. Wisconsin (10-0)

Bucky’s sitting pretty after making Iowa look like an FCS team on Saturday — especially impressive considering what Iowa did the week prior. Expect Michigan and Minnesota to provide decent enough challenges, but it seems like Wisconsin’s set up for a Big Ten title-game date with Ohio State.

6. Clemson (9-1)

Miami is the king of the ACC, but thankfully the ACC title game looks to be a Playoff play-in game between the Tigers and Canes. The champs still have as good a shot at this thing as anyone.

7. Auburn (8-2)

Two-loss Auburn in the Playoff? It’s not crazy at all after what the Tigers did to Georgia on Saturday, destroying the No. 1 team in the country and setting up what will be another titanic Iron Bowl meeting with Bama.

8. Notre Dame (8-2)

The Irish’s Playoff hopes sank like a ship in Biscayne Bay thanks to the demolition Miami dolled out on Saturday night. ND’s resume is still fine — two losses to two Playoff-caliber teams. But with no conference title to play for, a two-loss ND team might as well be a six-loss ND team.

9. Ohio State (8-2)

Guess who's still lurking in the Playoff race? It seemed Brutus was dead as could be after getting woodshedded by Iowa last weekend, but then Ohio State put a whooping on Michigan State and everyone’s ears perked up again. Appearing destined for the Big Ten title game, things could get interesting.

10. TCU (8-2)

The Frogs will most likely still get a crack at a Big 12 title — and revenge on the Sooners, who picked em apart on Saturday — but the Playoff might be out of the cards now.

11. Oklahoma State (8-2)

You know who’s still really good despite having losses to the two top teams in the Big 12? Okie State. That was some game between the Pokes and the ‘Clones on Saturday. If only the Mullet could be unleashed on the Playoff. Alas.

12. USC (9-2)

Dramatically overrated in the last batch of Playoff rankings, the Trojans now seem to be the cream of the unimpressive Pac-12 after Washington’s loss. All sorts of madness would have to occur in order for USC — or any Pac-12 team — to land in the final four.

13. Penn State (8-2)

Great job beating up on Rutgers this weekend, Penn State. Now what? With games against Nebraska and Maryland left, will any preseason favorite (outside Florida State, of course) get less attention down the stretch than the Lions?

14. UCF (9-0)

Central Florida is that Group of Five team this year. If it beats USF in the regular-season finale, people you know will be like, “Why shouldn’t UCF be in the Playoff?” And you’ll just have to give them a look and walk away.

15. Washington State (9-2)

Wazzu has to win one game and it’ll play USC for a Pac-12 title. Despite the lack of Playoff stakes, the Cougs winning a conference championship would be a pretty big deal.

16. Washington (8-2)

Of course, standing in Wazzu’s way is Washington, which tripped up against Stanford and could follow up last year’s Playoff appearance with absolutely nothing.

17. NC State (7-3)

The ACC and SEC seemed to have flipped roles overnight. The once-mediocre SEC now has three playoff-caliber teams and a couple other decent ones. The once-awesome ACC now has two of the best teams in the country and then … NC State.

18. Mississippi State (7-3)

The Bulldogs put up one heck of a fight against Bama on Saturday, and if it wasn’t for that ridiculous sequence of play-calling following Bama’s missed field goal, they might have won. Oh well.

19. LSU (7-3)

LSU beat Arkansas on Saturday, which isn’t a terribly difficult thing to do. 2017 will go down as a “what if” year for the Bayou Bengals. As in, what if they hadn’t lost to Troy?

20. Stanford (7-3)

Two of Stanford’s losses have come against ranked teams. It’s now beaten Washington and could beat Notre Dame in two weeks. It has one of the best running backs in America. So shouldn’t Stanford be better?

21. Memphis (8-1)

Since losing at UCF, Memphis has rolled everyone, winning five straight by an average of 47.8-27.2. Good job, Memphis.

22. Arizona (7-3)

The Wildcats are 7-3 this season and have scored at least 45 points in every one of those wins. That includes last weekend’s win over Oregon State, in which Khalil Tate ran for 206 yards and two touchdowns. Dude's good.

23. Northwestern (7-3)

Meow. The Cats are winners of five straight, even if their overtime streak came to an end. The quest for a 9-3 finish is on, with only Minnesota and lowly Illinois left on the regular-season schedule.

24. Michigan State (7-3)

Two losses in three weeks for Sparty, who got absolutely steamrolled by Ohio State this past weekend. Michigan State will likely be rooting for Michigan in The Game as it would figure to wrap its regular season with wins over Maryland and Rutgers.

25. West Virginia (7-3)

The ‘Neers have only lost to Virginia Tech, TCU and Okie State, which is not too bad. But that’s a couple losses too many in the high-flying Big 12.

Others receiving votes:

Virginia Tech (7-3)

Things have bottomed out for the Hokies, who have lost back-to-back road games to Miami and Georgia Tech after a 7-1 start. Without the loss to the Jackets, Virginia Tech’s resume would look real nice. But alas.

Iowa State (6-4)

There was almost another Attack of the ‘Clones this past weekend in a thriller with Okie State. But the Pokes came out on top, sending Iowa State to its fourth loss. That dream Big 12 title game featuring the ‘Clones? A fantasy. Sigh.

Michigan (8-2)

Michigan only has two losses, which means it has to be kinda good, right? Well, it’s lost its only two games against ranked teams and its best win is Florida, so … no, I guess not.

South Florida (8-1)

Way to beat UConn, South Florida.