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Illinois Head Coach Preview: Brad Underwood

What will the new head coach bring with him to Champaign?

NCAA Basketball: Kansas at Oklahoma State Rob Ferguson-USA TODAY Sports

Illinois hired Brad Underwood to be its Head Men’s Basketball Coach on March 18. The hire created much surprise and excitement among Illini fans as well as local and national media.

Tale of the Tape:

Underwood is coming off a 20-13 campaign in his only season at Oklahoma State. The Cowboys run came to an end after thrilling loss to Michigan in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. Underwood was able to turn the Cowboys around with impressive pace. He vaulted a 12-20 (3-15) team to 20 wins, an NCAA Tournament appearance, and the #1 ranked offense in the country.

Prior to his brief stint at OSU, Underwood coached 3 seasons at Stephen F. Austin in Nacogdoches, TX. At SFA, Brad Underwood went 89-14 overall and 53-1 in conference play. Those are records that a first year Division 1 head coach usually only sees if they are an inside an old EA Sports NCAA Basketball video game. Underwood led the Lumberjacks to 3 straight NCAA tournaments including 2 victories. In 2014, Underwood’s upset Shaka Smart’s 5th seeded VCU Rams. In 2016, his 14th seeded Lumberjacks upset his old coaching mentor Bob Huggins’ 3rd seeded WVU Mountaineers.

Underwood was also a longtime assistant at Western Illinois in the 90s and early 2000s. He also served as an assistant coach at his alma mater Kansas State under Bob Huggins and Frank Martin. Underwood would then follow Martin as an assistant to South Carolina before he took the head job at SFA.

Underwood has quickly risen in the ranks of top Division 1 college basketball coaches. One does not obtain a record of 109-27 from luck, recruiting or strength of schedule alone. Underwood has proven that he is one of the games best coaches and basketball minds.

On Offense:

The new Illini coach has already mentioned on several occasions how on offense he would love to get a layup, 3-point shot, or free throws in 7 seconds or less. That means running and that means tempo. It is a statistic that the staff will track and it is a style and identity that they are trying to instill in the program. This up-tempo style of offense is something he was able to install quickly at Oklahoma State, and that led to a 20 point per game increase and a Cowboy offense that ranked #1 in the country.

In the halfcourt, Underwood will run a spread offense that really emphasizes positionless basketball. I could try to explain it to you, but that is why we have YouTube. Like anything else, I recommend learning the theory and then watching it in practice. In this clip Underwood gives a 4 minute synopsis of the basic concepts of his spread offense:

In this next clip you can see a variety of the different options or outcomes of the spread offense described above:

In summary, Underwood is working to create space and opportunities for easy baskets with cutters and screeners off the ball. Ideally, all 5 players on the floor can make plays for themselves and others which should create matchup problems for the opponent. If you go and watch a highlight reel of Illinois from a game during the Groce Era, you aren’t going to see a lot a movement without the ball. Once a player was in a section of the floor on offense, they would usually stay in that area until they touched the ball. In other words, the ball would move around the motionless players. Underwood is going to have bodies moving constantly, and then based on the defense’s reaction to that action, the players will make the right reads and move the ball with an intentional purpose.

This Illini team is young, and doesn’t have a talent quite like Jawun Evans on the roster just yet. So they may not be able to run quite as fast, or master the halfcourt offense quite as well in year 1. However, Illini fans will see a distinct change in how their team plays on offense, and they should be excited for it.

On Defense:

Brad Underwood comes from the Bob Huggins and Frank Martin coaching tree. So on defense expect aggression. Underwood is going to want his guys to be in their opponents’ hip pocket on every possession of every game. This will ideally pressure the opposition, and speed them up and force them to play a tempo that Illinois will be much more comfortable playing. This doesn’t mean we will see the 40 minute full court press that Huggins employs at West Virginia, but the Illini will press, pick the ball up right away, and pressure their opponents into forcing turnovers. All of these things will allow the offense to score in seven seconds or less much easier.

Underwood tried to implement this last year at OSU, however, his team wasn’t really responding to it. They started 0-6 in conference play and this is when Underwood pivoted to a pack line defense. This is more similar to what we saw Illinois play under Groce. As opposed to a pressure defense, basically, the Cowboys changed their identity by trying to force outside shots, not allow easy baskets inside, and play a more conservative brand of basketball. And it worked. The Cowboys went 9-3 after there 0-6 start and made the tournament.

The takeaway here is that Underwood made an adjustment. A huge adjustment. He went away from his bread and butter on defense to try and adapt to his roster’s strengths. He realized what he needed to do to save his team’s season and he did it. That’s what a great basketball coach does.


Underwood and staff have already landed the best in-state players in Mark Smith and Ayo Dosunmu in back to back classes which is a huge start. The new staff will be instrumental in Underwood’s recruiting success going forward. Underwood retained Jamall Walker, who will be instrumental in the state of Illinois, especially the STL Metro-East area. Underwood hired Chin Coleman who has great ties to the Chicago basketball landscape. Finally, Underwood hired Orlando Antigua, an ex-Calipari assistant who has experience recruiting big names to UK from all over the country. Antigua will also be able to leverage his international connections for the Illini. Underwood may not have made his name in college basketball as a star recruiter in the past, but he has brought in a well-rounded staff that is more than capable of helping him land great players at the University of Illinois.

The Next Chapter:

Illinois has hired a great basketball coach. Underwood brings confidence, strategies and a culture that have been cultivated over his 30 years of coaching college basketball. Illinois has a coach who knows when, and how, to be hard on his players in practice, and how to build their trust as their careers mature. This year Illinois should find a new sense of confidence in their new head basketball coach both on and off the floor. Underwood has proven twice before that he can rebuild and re-energize programs quicker than most. And we are only a week away from seeing what he can do with the orange and blue.