Providing a helping hand to Illinois basketball

Providing a helping hand to Illinois basketball

CHAMPAIGN — Tyler Underwood doesn’t hold back during Illinois’ practices. He hounds his teammates on the defensive end and doesn’t shy away from going right at them with the ball in his hands on offense. 

For one, it’s how the redshirt sophomore guard is getting his primary basketball fix after he was denied a waiver for immediate eligibility by the NCAA after he transferred from Oklahoma State to follow his dad and first-year Illini coach Brad Underwood. 

Secondly, his style of play — his competitiveness — is something he inherited from his dad. 

Tyler Underwood’s presence on the practice court is notable for another reason, too, and one his teammates have noted since he arrived on campus this summer. 

The system Brad Underwood brought to Illinois is one Tyler Underwood not only played in the last two seasons at Oklahoma State and Stephen F. Austin but was largely exposed to since his dad was an assistant coach, first at Kansas State and then South Carolina under Frank Martin.

“Tyler obviously understands so much of the system being with his dad all the years he’s been around it,” Illinois redshirt junior Michael Finke said. “Sometimes he’ll stay out of practice or in different drills just because he’s not playing, but when he gets in you can tell things are changing. He’s doing different things that not all of us will do and he just changes the system and makes us all better when he’s out there.”

Tyler Underwood’s presence on the court — or more correctly, his absence during a drill — was noted in practice earlier this week. 

“We were working on our spread offensively, and Trent (Frazier) made the comment, he said, ‘Man, it flows so much better with Tyler in the game,’ ” Brad Underwood said. “There’s times I want Tyler in practice so our other guys can see it — see how the ball doesn’t stick and see how it flows.”

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It wasn’t a given Tyler Underwood would play for his dad in college. He visited Wofford the summer before his senior year at Nacogdoches (Texas) High School and came away from that trip to Spartanburg, S.C., liking what the Terriers and longtime coach Mike Young had to offer.

Still, the pull to play for his dad was there. Stephen F. Austin — his “hometown” team as it were — was his other top option. By the end of his senior season, which included tearing his ACL with five games to play, joining the Lumberjacks was an opportunity he couldn’t pass up.

It was an opportunity that ultimately led him from Nacogdoches to Stillwater, Okla., and now Champaign during the last two years as his dad parlayed an 89-14 record in three seasons at Stephen F. Austin into the Oklahoma State job and an NCAA tournament appearance in his lone season with the Cowboys before landing his current position as Illinois coach.

“Obviously him leaving (Oklahoma State) was pretty unexpected, but being from Illinois I was pretty fired up about coming home,” said Tyler Underwood, who was born in Macomb when his dad was an assistant at Western Illinois. “Growing up I was a big Dee Brown, Deron Williams, Luther Head fan. I knew how special this place could be.”

The first two stops of Tyler Underwood’s college basketball career, though, were the learning experiences. He redshirted the 2015-16 season at Stephen F. Austin after his knee injury.

“I didn’t practice until December of that year,” he said. “That was a really fun year. I got really close with Thomas Walkup. Connor Brooks was my neighbor growing up. I learned quite a bit that year about winning and the culture.”

His season at Oklahoma State helped him refine his game further.

“Oklahoma State was a really good experience for me — especially as a point guard getting to practice against Jawun Evans every day,” Tyler Underwood said. “As a player, that really helped me progress.”

Now, Tyler Underwood is helping his teammates get a better grasp of the system Brad Underwood wants the Illini to run. He’s spent extra time working with freshman guards Frazier and Mark Smith.

“Trent Frazier calls me his dad. That’s my son,” Tyler Underwood joked. “I try to help Trent and Mark and all those guys on and off the court. I’ve been around. I know what my dad wants. I just try to be his eyes for him — especially as a freshman he has so much going on right now. I try to help those guys as much as I can.”

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Brad Underwood points to his son’s passing ability as a strength. What might be stronger, though, is how he approaches the game. 

“He’s been in the gym since he was 2,” Brad Underwood said. “The best part of Tyler is his mental approach, and he understands what’s important about winning. I think he’s invaluable in the locker room.

“In a lot of ways, he’s a leader in practice because of that. But when he screws up, I’m still all over his butt.”

That’s the dynamic the father and son have had to work on the past three seasons. And they’ve ironed out the details. 

On the court, it’s coach and player, but what happens on the basketball court stays on the basketball court.

“I think we both do a pretty good job of separating the two,” Tyler Underwood said. “On the court, he gets on me just like he’s going to get on Trent and Mark, and I expect that.

“At home, it never carries over. If I have a bad day at practice and he was on me really hard, we don’t hold grudges at home. Probably the first year took a little adjustment, but year three it’s pretty smooth.”

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The coach/player and father/son dynamic is only happening in practices for the Underwoods. While Tyler Underwood would prefer to be spending his practice time preparing to play should his number be called in a game, that option went away when he didn’t get his waiver from the NCAA. 

The competitor in him made that a tough pill to swallow.

“That was really tough especially because I got the waiver the year before,” Tyler Underwood said. “I had been pretty expectant of getting it again. When you go through summer and fall training as hard as we do, it’s obviously not the best when you get news you’re not going to be able to play.”

That’s made this season a little different. Tyler Underwood spends more time with Illini strength and conditioning coach Adam Fletcher. He also has daily solo workouts with graduate assistant Grant Bale. Home games allow him to watch from the bench. On the road, he’s forced to the stands.

“I’ve found the positives in it and try to make some good out of it,” Tyler Underwood said, noting specifically his work with Fletcher that’s improved his athleticism and helped to get his body right for next season.

“Our compliance people told me (the NCAA was) pretty strict this go around on their waivers,” he continued. “They really didn’t give me much of a reason.”

From that bit of “devastating” news, Tyler Underwood is looking forward to the 2018-19 season when he’ll be eligible to play once again. And able to put on an Illinois jersey for more than just media day photos.

“It’s going to be special, and it’s going to be a lot of work going into it,” he said. “It will be a dream come true to be back on the court at the State Farm Center playing with these guys.”