It’s been a crazy couple of weeks for Brad Underwood, who led Oklahoma State to the NCAA Tournament before filling the head-coaching vacancy at Illinois.
“It’s been a whirlwind,” Underwood said on CBS Sports Radio’s The Doug Gottlieb Show. “I don’t know what day of the week it is, (but) I do know I’m in Arizona, so we’re starting to make some progress.”
We’ll get to Illinois in a second. But first, Oklahoma State.
It was an odd year in Stillwater. The Cowboys started 10-2, lost six games to open Big 12 play, then won nine of 10 against league rivals and ended the season on a four-game losing streak. Three of those losses were by five points or fewer, including a 92-91 loss to Michigan in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
Underwood offered a simple explanation for the 0-6 start in the Big 12.
“Teams were too good,” he said. “Players were too good. We’re 10-2, we played great in Maui, and yet, what happened in league play is elite point guards this year – pros. But it wasn’t those guys. It was more the power-forward spot. It was an area of concern for us, but you got Josh Jackson, you got Deonte Burton, you got Wesley Iwundu – all guys with tremendous ball skills and guys that could handle the ball. They initiated through them, and it got us spread out.”
Underwood, however, discovered that his team shot nine percent better from the field with junior big man Mitchell Solomon on the floor. The result was Oklahoma State’s fourth tournament appearance in the last five years.
Still, Underwood saw greener pastures in Champaign. The Fighting Illini haven’t made the tournament in four years, but Illinois is considered an elite job – and for good reason.
“It’s in a great state with a tremendous amount of talent,” Underwood said. “When I was (at Western Illinois) in the ’90s, it left an imprint. Lon (Kruger) had it going, Bill (Self) obviously (did too). Bruce (Weber) came in and took a team to the Final Four (in 2005). It’s a tremendous talent base, it’s got Chicago, it’s got great high school coaches, and it’s got a very passionate fan base. You’ve got a brand-new arena that’s just been completely gutted and renovated.”
You’ve also got athletic director Josh Whitman.
“His ‘We Will Win’ mentality was music to my ears,” Underwood said. “That was something that excited me. (I spent) 10 years (in Illinois), and it left an imprint. Every kid in that state wanted to go to school there at that time.”
Underwood, by the way, was an assistant under Frank Martin at Kansas State. He is thrilled that his former boss is in the Final Four.
“With Frank, everybody sees the passion on the sideline. Cameras are drawn to that,” Underwood said. “What they don’t see is the compassion that happens behind it – and he’s the best. He’s a family guy. He’s an incredible father. That never gets talked about. Everybody talks about him chewing on a kid. They also don’t see the hugs, and they don’t see the pats on the back. He’s an everyday guy, just like the rest of us. He doesn’t have an ego. He’s in it to help kids get better. I was tearing up just watching him because I know how big that job was at South Carolina.”