A week passed after John Groce was fired as the Illinois Fighting Illini head basketball coach by athletic director Josh Whitman, during which time the coaching carousel rumor mill was working to capacity.
Illini fans heard everything from Monty Williams to Tony Bennett to Gregg Marshall. All kinds of sources were hearing all kinds of things. Cuonzo Martin was in the mix. Billy Donovan was the subject of some speculation. Personally, I was convinced on Saturday morning that Whitman was meeting with Archie Miller to hammer out a contract.
Later that day, Brad Underwood was announced as the eighteenth head coach of the Illinois Fighting Illini, inking a contract that would pay him $3 million annually over 6 years. His Oklahoma State Cowboys had just fallen to the Michigan Wolverines 92-91 in the NCAA tournament to end his first year in Stillwater, where the locals were far from thrilled with his departure.
Underwood took over for the fired Travis Ford around this time last year, where he took a team that went 12-20 with only 3 conference wins and graduated six seniors. With the help of former 4-star point guard Jawun Evans, Underwood led the Cowboys to a 20-win season, rallying from an 0-6 start in conference play to finish 9-9. Evans was one of the many point guards who named John Groce’s Illinois program as his runner-up. In the NCAA Tournament, Underwood’s Cowboys were 19 points closer to knocking off Michigan than Groce’s Illini.
Prior to his hire at Oklahoma State, Underwood was a very hot up-and-coming coach. He was twice named Mid-Florida Conference Coach of the Year in three seasons at the helm of Daytona Beach Community College before joining Bob Huggins’ staff at Kansas State, staying on in Manhattan when Frank Martin took over and leaving when Martin left for South Carolina in 2012. He took over a successful Stephen F Austin program that had just made the NIT and took them to unprecedented heights, notching a school-record 32 wins and going 18-0 in conference play while upsetting the VCU Rams in the 2014 NCAA Tournament. In his three years at Stephen F Austin, his Lumberjacks lost only one conference game and won the regular season and tournament conference championships each year. Unheralded shooting guard Thomas Walkup became an integral part of the team’s success, as he was named Southland Conference Player of the Year in 2015 and 2016. Interestingly, he also won the Lou Henson Award (best mid-major player) in 2016.
Though he has only four years of Division 1 head coaching experience, he’s never missed the NCAA Tournament in those four years and has a 109-27 career record. His development of Walkup and Evans shows that he can get the most out of a guard. Especially a former 5-star like Jalen Coleman-Lands.
So how do I feel?
Thrilled. I wanted Underwood last year, when I felt Groce should have been canned for losing 19 games and having 4 of his players arrested. Current interim head coach and John Groce lead recruiter Jamall Walker will stay on board; four-star point guard Trent Frazier has re-affirmed his commitment to Illinois on Twitter and 5-star center Jeremiah Tilmon is expected to do the same.
For Underwood, this roster will lose five seniors and potentially two transfers, but will return no juniors, meaning that barring additional transfers, every player he inherits will be with him for at least two years. For the kind of coach that can maximize the talent available, this is encouraging.
He’s a pretty unknown quantity as a recruiter, but keeping Walker will be a big boost. If he can win immediately, he can establish the kind of credibility any recruiter needs.
Replacing Maverick Morgan with a true freshman may be an issue at center, so there may be some growing pains with a young roster, but Underwood has the potential to get rolling in a hurry, and with the guard talent we’ll return and acquire this year, the Orange and Blue should put up a lot of points.
Welcome to the Big Ten, Brad Underwood. Try to spend some of the game on the sidelines instead of the playing surface.
Underwood will be introduced at the State Farm Center in Champaign at halftime of Illinois’ NIT game against Boise State on Monday night (3/20)