Most folks in Big Ten Country might not know exactly what to expect from new Illinois head basketball coach Brad Underwood.
But it looks like Josh Whitman has done something similar with the basketball program to what he did with the football program when he hired Lovie Smith a little more than a year ago.
The football program was floundering under Tim Beckman and Bill Cubit, seemingly rudderless with a whole bunch of losing going on down in Champaign. Smith's hiring brought instant credibility and a jolt of energy to a program that desperately needed it, but most importantly it gave the Illini an identity.
Anyone who watched Smith's NFL teams, be they Bears fans or not, knew instantly what kind of football he liked to play. He was a defensive guy who made his Bears teams some of the best defensive squads the league had seen in a long time. The turnover-driven defensive mentality followed Smith from Chicago to Tampa Bay, and while it might take him a little while longer to implement it in Champaign, there's no doubt that's what he's trying to do at Illinois.
Even if you didn't watch Oklahoma State or weren't familiar with Stephen F. Austin outside of a couple NCAA tournament games, it doesn't take much digging to know what Underwood likes to do. He likes to score a whole lot of points.
So say hello to Illinois basketball's new identity.
The Cowboys were the No. 6 scoring offense in the nation this season, averaging 85.7 points a game. Illinois, in case you were wondering, averaged 72.1 points a game, good for 198th nationally.
But the difference between Smith's arrival and Underwood's might be that you won't need to expect a football-style waiting period for the new identity to take root. Underwood spent just one season in Stillwater. The year before he got there, the Cowboys averaged 66.5 points a game and ranked 303rd out of 346 Division-I teams. Meanwhile, his Stephen F. Austin Lumberjacks averaged 80.2 points a game and ranked 23rd in the country.
So, while Underwood might run into some more challenging defenses in the Big Ten than he did in the Southland Conference or even the Big 12, there's a good reason to believe that Illinois can change into a very different team overnight.
And isn't this what Whitman was trying to do? That was his goal with his football hire, bringing in someone who could put a definitive stamp on a program that had lost its way or didn't have one to begin with. John Groce is a good man who couldn't win many meaningful basketball games at Illinois, and while he frequently repeated his "toughness and togetherness" line, those intangible concepts don't resonate as much as more than 80 points a game would.
Underwood might not be the guy Illinois fans expected. Though no one expected Smith, either.
Again Whitman acted fast and acted to define one of his school's major programs. And whether success comes or not, he's made a bold statement once more.