Underwood: 'We don't have to beg anybody to come here'

Underwood: 'We don't have to beg anybody to come here'

CHAMPAIGN — Brad Underwood has just a few framed photos in his new office at Ubben Basketball Complex. It came furnished, of course, but the personal touches have yet to be added.

There simply hasn't been much time to do so.

Underwood has spent less than 10 days in Champaign since Illinois hired him March 18 to replace John Groce. The new Illini coach has three locations figured out — the iHotel, the Illini's practice facility and, this might sound familiar, the closest Starbucks.

"We're in a dead period now, which is kind of a blessing so you can actually start feeling a little bit settled in terms of what you do in the office and how you go about your day-to-day stuff," Underwood said from his largely empty office Wednesday morning.

Wednesday marked a couple other occasions. It was exactly one month from Selection Sunday, when Underwood found out his Oklahoma State team would face Michigan in the first round of the NCAA tournament (ultimately the last game he'd coach for the Cowboys). It also stood as the first day Underwood got in the gym with the Illini for offseason workouts.

"This wasn't something that was thought about a month ago," Underwood said. "You're experiencing one of the greatest days as a basketball coach and player as you can possibly have in terms of Selection Sunday. I'm so dialed in and focused on the team at that point that outside stuff happening, I'm really oblivious to it. Yet here I sit today and so much has happened and it's happened so quickly.

"I left a great place with a proud tradition, yet I sit at this desk and coach at one of my dream jobs. Not very many people get to do that."


He's everywhere

This April is in many ways a repeat of last April for Underwood. His Stephen F. Austin team lost 76-75 to Notre Dame in the second round of the NCAA tournament on March 20, 2016. The next day — by noon — he was Oklahoma State's new coach.

The same scenario — nearly exactly — played out last month. Oklahoma State lost 92-91 to Michigan in the first round of the NCAA tournament on March 17. The next day — before noon — he was meeting with Illinois athletic director Josh Whitman and accepting another job.

"A lot of people want to tell you what the first 90 days on a job are," Underwood said. "I've had three of them, and they're all different. ... You can have your to-do list and check-off list, but you never get to that because you deal with things as they arise."

For Underwood, that's meant traveling to visit Illinois' signed 2017 class, a trip to the Final Four in Arizona and more travel to start filling out his first Illini roster — a task compounded by both Jeremiah Tilmon and Javon Pickett requesting a release from their respective National Letters of Intent.

That's all happened in the midst of what Underwood called "a very challenging calendar from a recruiting standpoint." The end of March and all of April is littered with dead periods, recruiting periods and evaluation periods.

Illinois is currently in a recruiting period. It ends April 19. The next evaluation periods come April 21-23 and April 28-30 with quiet periods in between.

"It becomes very challenging to be a lot of places to touch a lot of needs," Underwood said. "All the meanwhile, you're trying to communicate and build relationships with your young guys on campus who are already on the team and you're trying to hire staff. It becomes a full plate."

The most states Underwood has hit in one day is three. Private planes, he said, are necessary at that level.

"You go and see and connect with people you have to connect with, and then it's on to the next spot," Underwood added. "We're still moving and shaking in those areas. You've got to be out, and you've got to touch as many people as you can and get in a lot of homes and see (2018 and 2019 recruits). It's the nature of our business today."


Shaping the future

Four open scholarships — the result of Tilmon and Pickett receiving their NLI releases Tuesday — affords Underwood the opportunity to start shaping the Illinois basketball program toward his vision. Currently having no seniors on the 2017-18 roster does the same.

A graduate transfer or two might round out the roster, but Underwood said he doesn't want to rely on that type of short-term roster solution.

"Ultimately, we want to build it with four-year guys who are committed to our success and can become the foundation of our culture," Underwood said. "We're going to make sure the fifth-year guys are the right pieces and they're the right guys to help us. When they move on, then we can fill in.

"It gives us time to dive in. Recruiting starts at the ninth-grade level. Building relationships is something vital to us building a program."

A successful program is Underwood's long-term focus at Illinois. He pointed to the Associated Press' recent list of the top-ranked basketball programs of all-time. The Illini came in at No. 11.

Underwood considers Illinois an elite program and said it should think of itself as elite and act like it's elite. Pride and passion were two words he mentioned, as well as full, complete buy-in from the players on up.

"I've said this and I feel strongly about this: I'm not begging anybody to come here," Underwood said. "We're the University of Illinois. We don't have to beg anybody to come here, and I would never disgrace or dishonor any of the coaches or former players who played here by doing that.

"We don't have to go out and kiss anybody's backside to be great. We're not going to do it. We're not going to compromise who we are and what the other great players here have done. No chance."

Underwood has that buy-in from his two remaining Class of 2017 players in Da'Monte Williams and especially Trent Frazier, who he recruited out of Wellington, Fla., when he was still at Stephen F. Austin.

"He's got a dynamic personality, and that translates," Underwood said. "He's got passion. Very few 18-year-old kids have a passion. Everybody sees his because he puts it out there. ... He's a very talented young man and I love his swagger."


Knowing the players

Illinois' NIT run led to the one area Underwood fell behind in during his first month with the team. Limited by the offseason practice restrictions already — just 8 hours per week — he didn't get in the gym with the Illini until Wednesday.

But he's still been able to get to know the players he has on campus.

"I think they're excited," Underwood said. "Change is sometimes very challenging for 18- to 22-year-olds. Sometimes it can be very positive. I've felt a very positive vibe from them. ... This summer becomes a vital part of this team's growth when we start getting all the pieces here."

Underwood's introduction to his new team came the same day as his introductory press conference. Illinois played Boise State in the second round of the NIT that very night. It was a game Underwood admittedly said was awkward for him, watching from one of the luxury suites at State Farm Center.

But it gave Underwood a chance to really focus on Illinois basketball on the court for the first time.

"They weren't far off," he said. "They were a bubble team that won games in March. That was important for the young guys."

Two returning starters in Te'Jon Lucas and Leron Black plus bench regulars Jalen Coleman-Lands, Michael Finke and Kipper Nichols will provide some familiar faces in 2017-18. Their roles, however, could be changed.

"I think everybody on this team will go through role changes," Underwood said. "When you lose a dominant player in terms of what Malcolm (Hill) brought ... we're going to ask guys to have different roles.

"I like what I saw. I think there's some good pieces. As they get more comfortable with me, I think they'll see the way we like to play and I think some of those guys can be very good in that system."


New faces, new places
Illinois hiring Brad Underwood was just one spin of the coaching carousel in college basketball this year. Here are some of the notable changes (of the 36 total) made so far:

Team    Out    In
Akron    Keith Dambrot    John Groce
Groce heads back to the state of Ohio after totaling a 97-76 record in five seasons at Illinois.

California    Cuonzo Martin    Wyking Jones
Jones got a promotion and his first head coaching job after Martin returned to the Midwest.

Chattanooga    Matt McCall    Lamont Paris
Paris got his first head coaching job after spending the past seven seasons at Wisconsin.

Dayton    Archie Miller    Anthony Grant
Grant gets another shot as a head coach after being fired at Alabama in 2015 after six seasons.

Georgetown    John Thompson III    Patrick Ewing
Hoyas might have parted with JTIII, but not Big John Thompson’s influence in hiring Ewing.

Indiana    Tom Crean    Archie Miller
Now at a power-six program, Miller might have to shed up-and-comer label.

LSU    Johnny Jones    Will Wade
Wade is the fourth straight VCU coach to leave the Rams for a power-six job.

Miami (Ohio)    John Cooper    Jack Owens
Nine seasons as an assistant under Matt Painter at Purdue got Owens the Redhawks job.

Missouri    Kim Anderson    Cuonzo Martin
Martin’s first move was to hire Michael Porter Sr., which secured Michael Porter Jr.

New Mexico    Craig Neal    Paul Weir
Weir switches sides in the rivalry after going 28-6 in his lone season at New Mexico State.

N.C. State    Mark Gottfried    Kevin Keatts
Keatts was one of the hot names among mid-major coaches after his 72-28 run at UNC-W.

Oklahoma St.    Brad Underwood    Mike Boynton Jr.
Cowboys stayed in house and pinched their basketball pennies giving Boynton first top job.

San Diego St.    Steve Fisher    Brian Dutcher
Coach-in-waiting gets his turn after Fisher retired following his 18th season.

Washington    Lorenzo Romar    Mike Hopkins
Hopkins spent the last 22 seasons as Jim Boeheim’s top assistant at Syracuse.

Winthrop    Pat Kelsey    Pat Kelsey
Kelsey backed out of a signed contract at UMass at the last minute to stay with the Eagles.


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JamesB wrote on April 16, 2017 at 12:04 am

Good article.  I like BU's attitude.  Let's act like we're the elite program we are.  Don't beg some 17 year old to come here.  If you're interested great, if not don't waste our time.

Moonpie wrote on April 16, 2017 at 9:04 am

Goodness--the Latest Coaching Installment is getting defensive already. And here I thought that was Lovie Dovie Savior Man's job.

The Latest Installment ought to actually consider begging. All this talk about an elite program is gibberish. I don't know whether Coach Grimace begged, but the talent did not come here. The record for the past five years and beyond is not elite. All this "We are Illinois" talk is just the sort of condescending arrogance to be expected from a silly Ancient Tate column.

Prove this We are Illiinois attitude on the court and field instead of just muttering it at the Esquire. Be bigger than the Tates of the world.

Illinifan533 wrote on April 18, 2017 at 10:04 am

Awwww, another fake Illini fan with their great analysis.