UI MBB notes: Whitman explains Underwood pick
CHAMPAIGN — Josh Whitman found himself in an odd situation Friday when Michigan and Oklahoma State played in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
The Wolverines are Illinois' rival and knocked the Illini out of the Big Ten tournament in Washington, D.C. —a 20-point thumping. But Michigan could also do Illinois a favor by beating Oklahoma State, as Whitman had targeted the Cowboys' Brad Underwood as his top choice to be the Illini's next coach.
"I had some pretty strong mixed emotions watching that game," the Illinois athletic director said. "We were lucky, in some senses, that he became available when he did so we could act as quickly as we did. If they continued to go, that would have been tough on us."
Whitman's strong feelings about Underwood, whom he hired Saturday and officially announced as the 18th coach in program history Monday, amounted to a laundry list.
Among the items on it? Underwood's style of play.
"It's the style of play, but it's also more the identity," Whitman said. "I think we've lacked that identity. The thing he embodies — the toughness, the intensity — resonates really strongly with me both as an individual and an athletic director. I'm really happy that we'll be able to bring that style to our court. I think our fans will embrace it, and I think recruits will embrace it."
That style of play is up-tempo on offense and "in your face" aggression on the defensive end. That's something Underwood said he's adjusted to fit his coaching style after spending time on coaching staffs led by Bob Huggins and Frank Martin.
"I was such a bad defender as a player that I figured I better emphasize the defensive end when I became a coach," Underwood joked during his introductory press conference. "I like the thought of not allowing teams to do what they practice every single day. If I can take them out of it, I think I can beat them."
Underwood also stressed it wouldn't be an overnight shift or fix implementing his style at Illinois.
"We're laying a foundation," he said. "We'll do everything we can to become that as quickly as we can."
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Former DePaul and NBA forward Stephen Howard, who was on the ESPN call for Monday's second-round NIT game between Illinois and Boise State, said Underwood is a coach who can adjust his style to his roster.
"He's a guy that's not handcuffed to any type of playing style," said Howard, who spent time with the Utah Jazz, San Antonio Spurs and Seattle SuperSonics in a professional career that lasted from 1992 through 2008, with several stops overseas.
"Look at Stephen F. Austin (where Underwood previously coached), and it's a totally different brand of basketball than at Oklahoma State," Howard continued. "I think Illinois fans will enjoy his up-tempo style and players will obviously enjoy it as well. It's a great hire. I like him a lot as a coach."
Underwood leading Oklahoma State to the NCAA tournament made him 4 for 4 as a coach — four seasons leading a team and four tournament berths. The Cowboys managed that even after losing their first six Big 12 games this season.
"I was shocked it took them that long to win their first game, but the Big 12 is a very difficult conference, just like the Big Ten," Howard said. "I think one of the things he's gotten from Frank Martin and (Huggins) is you won't find any coaches that love their guys more than they do. Those guys really played for him."
Illinois, of course, was in the odd position of officially introducing its next coach while the team was still playing under interim coach Jamall Walker.
"The way the college basketball landscape is, if you key in on a coach that you want and you're able to get him, then you have to jump on it because everything's fluid," Howard said. " I think that's what they did here, and they got a guy they feel comfortable with."
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Underwood said his priority as Illinois faced Boise State on Monday was to stay in the background as much as possible.
"I have a tremendous amount of respect for the job that he's doing in a hard situation," Underwood said of Walker, adding any conversations with Walker would happen after the season. "That's not easy. To get a win and continue moving forward, that's very impressive."
Walker has maintained not much has changed in his move from assistant coach to interim head coach. He joked that he stands up more during the game. The main difference is he makes more decisions and has final say.
"But we're a team effort," Walker said. "Dustin (Ford) has been great. Paris (Parham) has been great. I just hope people understand that takes a lot of character for those guys on my staff to continue to bring their best to practice and to these guys every day knowing the fact they may or may not be here (in the future).
"These guys are giving me their best. They come with a big smile on their face and bring tremendous enthusiasm. I can't thank them enough."
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Edwardsville's Mark Smith was named Illinois' Gatorade Player of the Year on Monday. The 6-foot-4 guard, who averaged 21.9 points, 8.4 assists, 8.2 rebounds and 2.1 steals per game for the Tigers, is Illinois' top remaining recruiting target in the Class of 2017.
Smith told the Belleville News-Democrat's Norm Sanders that Underwood reached out Saturday after being hired at Illinois. New Missouri coach Cuonzo Martin reportedly did the same.
Underwood said he had reached out to all four of Illinois' signed players in the Class of 2017. In-person conversations with Jeremiah Tilmon, Javon Pickett, Da'Monte Williams and Trent Frazier are next.
"It's a process that's them getting to know me and me introducing myself," Underwood said. "As soon as possible, we'll be getting in front of them and talking about what our vision is for the program and how we see them. Absolutely (the class is) very talented, and it's a group that we'd like to see out on the court every day."