Smile Politely

Illini wrangle Underwood from Cowboys

From the guy who brought you “Lovie Smith: Illini football coach,” comes a new thriller with loads of potential, “Brad Underwood: Illini basketball coach.”

When Smile Politely published a list of potential replacement coaches for John Groce, Underwood did not feature, but we were not the only ones to look past the Oklahoma State man. Look around, most beat writers and pundits and fans failed to imagine Underwood in an orange blazer. But Josh Whitman cares not for your imagination.

Likewise, the fact that Underwood failed to make the wish lists of many bears no reflection upon his ability. Still, some background is in order.

The 53-year-old native Kansan played college ball at Hardin-Simmons (where Lou Henson began his coaching career, though not as Underwood’s coach) and at Kansas State. In 1988 Underwood got his first head coaching gig at Dodge City Community College, he then spent 10 years as an assistant at Western Illinois before a three-year stint as head coach of Daytona Beach Community College. He returned to being an assistant at his alma mater, Kansas State, where he spent six seasons, before moving to the same job at South Carolina for three years.

Underwood’s first head coaching gig came in 2013 at Stephen F. Austin University, and though he spent just three years in Nacogdoches, they were memorable. In his first season the Lumberjacks went 18-0 in conference play and upset VCU in the first round of the NCAA Tourney. Two years later his team was back in the big dance and this time upset 3-seed West Virginia. Underwood’s record at SFA includes just one (1!) conference loss and three consecutive Tourney berths.

Those excellent years at SFA earned Underwood a better gig last season, as he moved on to Oklahoma State to helm the Cowboys. He took over a team that finished the previous season 12-20 (3-15) and immediately turned it into a 20-12 (9-9) team that earned a 10 seed in the NCAA Tourney. Perhaps more impressively, Underwood’s Cowboys were the 6th best scoring offense in the nation, averaging 85.7 points per game, and had the best offensive efficiency in the nation according to KenPom.

There are unknowns about Underwood, such as his ability to draw big recruits, but for the most part his hiring at Illinois is receiving rave reviews.

It’s not just pundits praising the move, though. Mac Irvin Fire, one of the state’s premier AAU teams gave the hire a shout-out too (note: John Groce had extremely little success getting in good with the Irvins).

Early reports have Jamal Walker being retained on Underwood’s staff, as well, which could mean very good things regarding Illinois’s incoming class. More than Walker, though, recruits should love playing for an offensive coach like Underwood, and it’s fairly remarkable Josh Whitman was able to scoop him up.

Whitman did well to read the tea leaves or know the right people and take advantage of the fact Underwood felt underpaid at OSU. By offering him a reported $2 million raise on his $1 million yearly salary at OSU, Whitman has stolen a coach that would have been in demand had more athletic directors known he was available. And he’s given Illinois a new identity early in the postseason, setting his coach up to be as successful as possible in the next season.

These glowing reviews and kind words for Underwood could all blow up in five years time (go find any praise for John Groce after his first season at Illinois and see how that has held up), but as of now it seems like a win for Whitman. At the very least, Illinois basketball feels nationally relevant right now, which is at least going to be a short-term win with donors.

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