Tate: A whirlwind romance
Josh Whitman didn't confer with Lou Henson about the new Illini men's basketball coach.
But if Whitman had done so, the former Illini coach would have recommended Brad Underwood.
Henson, who'll return to his home here April 25, called twice from New Mexico on Friday ... before the Oklahoma State-Michigan game to discuss the coaching talents of Underwood, and afterward in what might be described as an "I told you so" following the Cowboys' impressive-but-disappointing one-point loss to Michigan.
"This guy can coach," Henson emphasized. "He's as good as anyone. He's tough, and his defense might be even better than mine was."
Henson could have added: Underwood's offense produced 86 points per game and was ranked No. 1 in the country in the efficiency formula, the team reaching 9-9 in the Big 12 after slipping to 3-15 the previous season under Travis Ford.
Time of the essence
It was a whirlwind romance.
Whitman traveled to Indianapolis for Friday's NCAA tournament games with a waiver that allowed him to act in advance of Monday's reported conclusion of the search.
As we saw with the hiring of Lovie Smith, and with the overnight basketball hirings of Cuonzo Martin (Missouri) and Kevin Keatts (North Carolina State), timing protocol is a thing of the past ... with one difference. Martin and Keatts had apparently been deep in negotiations before their teams lost. That may not have been the case with Underwood.
As Whitman traveled, rumors persisted that the UI Board of Trustees had authorized a $3 million annual salary, mistakenly presumed for Archie Miller, who became available when his Dayton team lost to Wichita State.
But Whitman had other ideas and stated: "The tenacity of Underwood's team jumped off the page. I love his style, and the speed and toughness with which they play. He identified this as a place he wants to be, and I envision our teams playing like that at Illinois.
"This happened very quickly. The timeframe was as good as I could hope for."
First indication that Whitman had his man was the report of a Flightstar aircraft, formerly owned by Shad Kahn, landing in Stillwater, Okla., on Saturday. That was the giveaway. They flew back to Flightstar, landing at 5 p.m.
Glance at the past
"These last 12 to 14 hours have gone fast," Underwood said at Willard Airport in Savoy. "We had just come out of a hard-fought loss (to Michigan). It's been hectic, and when I got the call, I was excited. I have a special place in my heart for the state and the university."
Underwood spent a decade (1992-2003) as an assistant coach at Western Illinois, saying that he is "a fan of history and tradition." He later coached under two hard-nosed leaders, Bob Huggins and Frank Martin, and earned his spurs at Stephen F. Austin.
In three seasons with the Lumberjacks, they went 53-1 in the Southland Conference, upset VCU in the 2014 NCAA tournament and upset West Virginia a year ago before losing to Notre Dame on a last-second tip-in.
Inheriting a team that struggled last season under Ford in the Big 12, Underwood's Cowboys lost their first six conference games before rallying to finish with a .500 mark in league play.
Earlier, the Cowboys defeated UConn, Georgetown, Tulsa and Wichita State while losing to North Carolina 107-75 and Maryland 71-70, those results helping them slip into the NCAA tourney.
What about Walker?
From all indications, UI interim coach Jamall Walker, who'll lead the Illini into Monday's 8 p.m. NIT home game against Boise State, will be a part of the Underwood staff. Both hail from the Wichita area and have known each other for many years.
An announcement on that will come Monday after they've had a chance to huddle on the particulars. Walker has received multiple outside offers but has indicated a desire to remain here.
Underwood earned $1 million in his first season at Oklahoma State. Details of his new contract, reported at $3 million, and the negotiated buyout arrangements will be clarified at Monday's press conference.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at email@example.com.