INDIANAPOLIS —He left the 2017 NCAA Tournament in 40 minutes, and he left Oklahoma State University in less than a year. But Brad Underwood figures to stay as head coach of Illinois Fighting Illini for as long as he likes.
When fans and alumni of the Fighting Illini were watching the coaching carousel begin to spin with openings at rivals on their Eastern (Indiana) and Western (Missouri) borders, and when Mizzou closes its position with the hire of veteran Cuonzo Martin, several told me they believed they would wind up with the right coach for one reason: They trusted athletic director Josh Whitman.
That turned out to be the right approach. Whitman shocked everyone by spiriting away an outstanding talent who’s been in the NCAA Tournament every year he has been a head coach —but only got to Stillwater last spring.
It appears OK State miscalculated by presenting Underwood with only a five-year, $6.3 million deal when he was hired to replace Travis Ford. The Oklahoma State athletic department had drastically overpaid Ford and was not as generous with Underwood in hiring him away from Stephen F. Austin.
Illinois certainly will be, having already approached former NBA coach Monty Williams with an offer that Yahoo! Sports’ Adrian Wojnarowski reported would have made him one of the NCAA’s highest-paid coaches.
Underwood has risen quickly and dramatically and with good reason in the past decade. He joined Bob Huggins’ staff at Kansas State in 2006 after seven seasons coaching in junior college and nearly a decade as an obscure assistant at Western Illinois. He stayed with Frank Martin after Huggins left for West Virginia and went along to South Carolina when Martin left K-State. All of that gave Underwood a solid foundation when he finally became a Division I head coach at Stephen F. Austin in 2013.
How does one get noticed at a place like SFA? Win. Win big. Win in the NCAA Tournament. Underwood’s teams averaged 29.7 wins, reached the tournament in each of his three seasons with the Lumberjacks by winning the Southland Conference Tournament and advanced in two of those years.
The Cowboys featured the No. 1 offense in college basketball according to KenPom.com. They did not defend well this season, ranking 156th, but SFA was 38th with a veteran team last season. There seems to be little doubt his team is oriented toward the offensive end, however.
Underwood didn’t change anyone’s mind about his ability when his Cowboys went 40-minutes step-for-step with reigning Big Ten Tournament champion Michigan in the first round of the tournament Friday at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. OK State fell, 92-91, in a game that was intensely competitive and aesthetically pleasing.
After the loss, Underwood flew back to Stillwater, Okla., with the team, but he made his way to Champaignto pose for this photograph with his new boss less than 24 hours later:
And Underwood figures to stay there as long as it suits him.