CHAMPAIGN — Brad Underwood’s first season at Kansas State working for Bob Huggins meant stepping away from the court. Underwood was the Wildcats’ director of operations in 2007 after spending the previous 17 seasons on the sideline as an assistant or head coach.
The transition away from coaching to a staff position was a difficult one. Underwood has told the story multiple times that he’d have to go ride a stationary bike during Kansas State’s practices in 2007 since he couldn’t be on the court himself.
So Underwood has some firsthand experience with what Jamall Walker will go through this season in his first as assistant to the head coach and defensive coordinator after seven seasons as an assistant coach at Illinois under both Underwood and John Groce.
“Having done it myself, it’s not the easiest thing,” Underwood said. “One of the challenges, I think, is channeling your competitiveness in maybe a little bit different area. You want to get out in practice and dive into those things, and that role is a little bit different. I think as he continues to go through the season, he’ll look at it more from the head coach side of things, and it becomes Xs and Os and schemes and how do we attack this instead of just the everyday (tasks) with guys.”
Underwood made the change to his coaching staff late last month, moving Walker to his new role and hiring Stephen Gentry away from Gonzaga as his new assistant coach, much like Mark Few did in 2017 in hiring Gentry away from Underwood. It’s a move Underwood said he had been pondering before deciding to make the switch before the school year started.
“I can put him in a situation where he works with me every single day,” Underwood said. “It could also help him take that next step (in his career). He’ll adjust. It won’t be easy, but he’ll play into that role quite nicely.
“He’s a teacher. It’s something he’s been able to do. But I think when you communicate, you can do a lot of advance stuff with me. I’m truly excited about having him here every day.”
Walker’s new role gives Illinois a unique coaching staff from its Big Ten counterparts. The staff makeup across the conference varies — director of basketball operations and video coordinator are the consistencies — but the Illini are now the only program out of 14 with two assistants to the head coach. Walker has the defensive coordinator title, and while Geoff Alexander’s role isn’t spelled out the same way, his focus is on the offensive end of the court.
“It’s really an advantage to have Geoff on the offensive side and Jamall on the defensive side, and those are my guys,” Underwood said. “They’re with me. I don’t have to worry about them being gone recruiting. Every advance scout, they can get ahead of me on those things and really be dialed in when it comes to the execution piece. I’ve got two incredible basketball minds in Jamall and Geoff that get to work with me every single day.”
Walker and Alexander won’t just be focused on what Illinois does offensively and defensively. Their ability to help in scouting future opponents gives Illinois a broader base to work from in that area.
“We can put a great game plan together along with the scout coach,” Underwood said, “and we can kind of feel like we have this thing surrounded a little bit.”