David Haugh: Underwood makes Whitman's shrewd move look like good investment for IllinoisChicago Tribune — By David Haugh Chicago Tribune
March 20-- Apparently, new Illinois coach Brad Underwood likes doing everything fast, so Illini fans should expect that includes winning too. Like next year.
The coach who agreed to succeed John Groce quicker than you can say Chief Illiniwek explained the secret of shooting within the first seven seconds of each possession, a trademark of his teams.
"It's the weakest part of the defense, analytically," Underwood said Monday at the State Farm Center. "Teams struggle in transition going from one end of the court to the other. It's really not that complicated. Just get your guys to run real hard and play hard. Then we try to take advantage of the offensive glass as an opportunity to score."
Underwood came across at his introductory news conference as smart, assertive and as accomplished a winner as his 109-27 record the last four seasons at Stephen F. Austin and Oklahoma State suggests.
He made everything sound so easy: playing with pace, recruiting in-state talent, elevating a sleepy program to elite status. He showed the command everyone in coaching has been raving about since Illinois athletic director Josh Whitman announced the hiring Saturday, a move that caught more than just folks in Stillwater, Okla., off guard. The married father of three left an impression as a down-to-earth Midwesterner, a guy grounded by the fact he waited until 49 before becoming a Division 1 head coach.
His remarks included no shtick and little spin with an air of confidence, just what the underachieving Illini need after four years of empty promise. Other names on the coaching market might have created more buzz, but much like when Michigan hired John Beilein in 2007, Illinois lured an established coach in his 50s more popular in coaching circles than on social media. And nobody at Michigan is complaining about Beilein after three Sweet 16s in the last five years, a level Illinois realistically can reach.
"I dream big," said Underwood, 53, who signed a six-year, $18 million contract. "Winning a national championship is something that can happen here."
Underwood's hiring happened for one main reason: The former Kansas State sharpshooter understands offensive basketball in a way that distinguishes him. His teams make it hard for fans to check their phones during games for fear of missing baskets.
"We like to play fast and were one of the top teams in the country scoring in the first seven seconds," Underwood boasted.
You cannot find a statistic to measure the respect coaching colleagues show for Underwood's offensive mind.
One day in the middle of the 2010-11 season, then-Kansas State coach Frank Martin decided to scrap his offense. Underwood, Martin's assistant, had been trying for years to get his boss to implement his "pitch-post" offense, and a midseason slump offered the ideal opportunity, according to an associate.
Underwood's spread system revolves around floor spacing and starts with an entry pass to the elbow, where the post player entertains options. Guards and wings working off screens particularly thrive in an offense that allows for creativity.
"We need to hone in on our identity," Whitman said, referring to Underwood's attack.
At Western Illinois, where Underwood worked under Jim Kerwin from 1992 to 2003, they called it the "Johnny Orr offense," copied off the late former Iowa State coach who began his college playing career at Illinois. The Illinois culture change that Underwood alluded to will include the free-flowing style that helped Oklahoma State improve from the 303rd-ranked scoring offense in Division I to sixth in just one year.
"We put it in 20 years ago with Brad and ran it for five or six years pretty successfully at Western," Kerwin said on the phone. "He lets players run up and down the court, which guards particularly love."
That will ingratiate Underwood in Chicago, St. Louis or any city rich with talented recruits who relish offensive freedom. The growth potential for playmakers likely can break down whatever perceived barriers exist. And if it can get messy navigating the Chicago Public League or other urban recruiting areas, remember that a guy who recruited for Bob Huggins and Martin likely knows how to get his hands dirty.
It requires savvy Underwood just demonstrated he possesses. According to Whitman's timeline, he reached out to Underwood's agent Wednesday, two days before Oklahoma State's NCAA Tournament game. Underwood claimed not to know about Illinois' interest until after the Cowboys' one-point loss Friday-but that seems implausible.
"I was thrilled to learn Illinois has long been a destination," Whitman said, explaining that recent openings elsewhere accelerated the process. "If we waited until midnight Monday, we'd be putting ourselves at a competitive disadvantage."
Whitman contacting candidate Monty Williams before firing Groce mirrored his method when he gauged Lovie Smith's interest in the football job that still belonged to Bill Cubit. That pragmatic approach might please Illinois supporters but again raised eyebrows among his old-school conference peers, according to one concerned Big Ten athletic director.
In a results business, Whitman did what needed to be done for the good of Illinois basketball. Everyone can accept those bottom-line realities as long as Whitman resists repeating the words "integrity" and "commitment" when describing a coach who gushed as recently as November that the Oklahoma State job he held for 362 days "fits who I am."
Illinois simply fit better when it offered to triple his salary. Everyone understands that.
And it seems like money well spent.
ABOUT THE WRITER
David Haugh is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune.
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