Underwood's offense appealing to Finke, Illini
CHAMPAIGN — Michael Finke said he watched the occasional NCAA tournament game in the past week with the idea one of the coaches leading a team on TV might be his next coach at Illinois. As those games played out, he tried to imagine himself in those systems.
Friday morning's Michigan-Oklahoma State first-round game, Finke admitted, wasn't one of those games. But just more than 24 hours later, Oklahoma State's Brad Underwood was announced as the 18th coach in Illinois program history.
"I wasn't watching it as, 'He could be our coach,' but now looking back at it they looked like a lot of fun," Finke said of Underwood's Cowboys. "We've all been waiting, anticipating, who we were going to get it, and I think it's kind of caught everyone off guard. We didn't really know much about him, but watching Oklahoma State with Jawun Evans and their whole offense, they were a lot of fun to watch this year.
"We were talking about how free they play and just how quick they go. A lot of us are really thrilled to play in that system and are looking forward to getting going with him."
Underwood met with the Illinois players before Sunday afternoon's practice — the final prep for Monday's 8 p.m. second-round NIT matchup with Boise State.
His initial message to his new team?
"The biggest thing I took from it is we're going to play really hard, but we're going to have a lot of fun," Finke said. "That was something he kept saying, and he kept saying how he was thrilled to be here."
Underwood's favorite story of how his son Tyler's first jersey was a Brian Cook jersey especially resonated with Finke, who grew up in Champaign an Illini fan. Underwood's preferred style of play also caught the Centennial grad's attention.
"From what I've heard so far it's a stretch offense and likes to spread the floor," said Finke, who lit up about the possible open three-pointers he might get. "I saw an interview where he said he likes to score in the first 7 seconds, which I think is great. ... It looks like a really fun system, and I think it will draw a lot of recruits that want to come play for a coach that's having fun and you're winning."
Illinois interim coach Jamall Walker said he hadn't any in-depth conversations with Underwood about his future with the Illinois basketball program. The two do have a connection, however, with Underwood having recruited Walker's older brother when he was the coach at Dodge City (Kan.) Community College, and later on the recruiting trail — mainly when Underwood was a Kansas State assistant.
"Brad's teams are tough. They're hard-nosed. He's a Kansas boy. We've got some tough guys there," Walker said with a knowing smile. "They play a fun style. They're aggressive on both ends of the floor. Bright coach with a bright future."
Walker's own future isn't his focus. He said he's made a commitment to his Illinois players that his focus will be them.
"I want to give these guys my best," Walker said. "I've asked them to eliminate distractions, and I've got to do the same. To be hypocritical and say I'm going to do these other things, I can't do that. I've got to walk the walk as well.
"We're going to focus in on at that at some point in time, but right now it's about these guys and giving them my best. ... If it was up to me, I think this place is special. Champaign's been, for us, home more than any other place."