Tate: Underwood 'a culture guy,' which should thrill C-U
They stand out like beacons of light in the NCAA Sweet 16.
Gonzaga, Butler and Xavier. Fast becoming old faithfuls.
You don’t consider Gonzaga a mid-major any more, not after 19 tournament appearances since 1999, with multiple wins on eight occasions.
Nor should you doubt Butler, even if you can’t explain how the Bulldogs do it (runners-up in 2010 and 2011).
And if you didn’t notice, Xavier has joined March Madness for the 15th time since 2001, twice reaching the Elite Eight.
What do they have in common? A brand? A system? A culture? Ah, there’s the word.
Culture: human intellectual achievement regarded collectively. In basketball, it thrives on continuity. Turnover tears at it.
You heard Lovie Smith, the third UI football head coach in a year, speak to the football culture.
He recognized Illini fans and indifferent students as falling into a losing attitude. How can a conference football record (now 10-39 since 2011) be viewed any differently?
Developing an identity
And so it is with basketball where the sixth UI coach in 22 years must revive a divided fan base, win over the state’s high school coaches and gain support of former Illini players who feel disenfranchised ... namely, a culture that is waning but possessing the fans, financial backing and available talent for a quick turnaround.
Brad Underwood addressed it in a variety of ways at Monday’s press conference:
“I’m a culture guy,” he said. “We work to create an environment where the players are committed to each other.
“At Stephen F. Austin, we had a culture of success, something that wasn’t easily developed at the junior college level (a 29-0 start at SFA and an NCAA win over VCU in 2014 surely helped).
“Every elite program — and Illinois is elite — has a place to recognize the people who made this place successful ... from coaches to players to student managers to the Orange Krush. I want the current players to have a place to return to.
“We need to hone in on our identity as a team, to be tough and tenacious, and to have that bleed into our style of play.”
By now you know Underwood prefers a fast-breaking style, noting that “the defense is weakest in the first 7 seconds.”
It is a style that Illini fans will relish. But it might not come overnight. Returnees like Michael Finke, Leron Black and Jalen Coleman-Lands haven’t excelled in the running game. And, by the way, most Big Ten coaches are dedicated to nullifying rival runouts. That’s part of the Big Ten culture (there’s that word again).
Regarding the Big Ten, an extraordinary group of now-experienced freshmen project an improved league in 2017-18. That will make it difficult for Underwood as he loses six seniors and must clarify the status of sophomore D.J. Williams, who was not expected to return under John Groce.
As for incoming recruits, Underwood will make home visits a priority after Tuesday’s media trip to Chicago.
‘Over in a matter of hours’
We are left to wonder about the status of Illini assistant coaches Jamall Walker, Dustin Ford and Paris Parham. In announcing Underwood’s salary at $2.75 million next season, with annual raises bringing it to $18 million over six years, AD Josh Whitman provided Underwood with $850,000 to be divided among three assistant coaches.
Underwood didn’t say whether he intends to bring assistants with him from Oklahoma State, nor when he will meet with Illini assistants. When asked about Walker, the new coach said he didn’t want to be a distraction while Walker was serving as interim coach in the NIT.
In a nutshell, Whitman appears to have pulled off a “smart move” by landing a coach who is applauded by the metropolitan media ... a coach who spent a decade assisting at Western Illinois, where he learned the state’s idiosyncrasies ... a coach who recruited Illinois during five seasons at Kansas State ... and a coach who secretly hankered for the UI job.
His agent, Bret Just, a former Deerfield High School coach who represents Tim Miles, Shaka Smart and numerous others, said: “Brad is not easy to approach after losing a one-point game (to Michigan on Friday). You might expect him to shout back, ‘Not now!’ But I called and he said to go forward. He and Whitman met for the first time Saturday. It was over in a matter of hours.”
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Next on the list
Brad Underwood already has one of the first priorities for new Illinois basketball coaches covered: plenty of orange ties (from his lone season at Oklahoma State). Beat writer Scott Richey highlights the next items that should be on Underwood’s “to-do” list:
SECURE THE RECRUITS
First thing’s first. There’s some travel to be had. Places like East St. Louis and Belleville. Peoria and Wellington, Fla. Keeping the 2017 recruiting class intact will make 2017-18 easier. Then, see what Edwardsville’s Mark Smith’s up to. The Tigers guard would make an already strong ‘17 class stronger.
FIND YOUR PEOPLE
Staff construction will be just as important as firming up the roster, and Underwood has the resources ($850,000 for assistants and $550,000 more for support staff) to assemble a strong staff. Think St. Louis, Chicago and an Xs and Os guy.
GO ON A NOSTALGIA TRIP
This will require some planning (ask Rod Cardinal), but after the first two items are finished it’s party time back at The Farm. The guest list? Every former Illini that can make it. Several have expressed a disconnect with the program in the past few years, and they can be a valuable resource.
MEET THE PUBLIC
Underwood won’t have any impact on wins and losses until next season. Until then? Make the rounds. First pitch at an Illinois baseball game. Random (but Twitter announced) stops on campus, Green Street, downtown and the mall. Engage the fan base.