Wesner: Illinois’ Underwood is Groce 2.0

Photo courtesy of Sporting News.
Nine days and one NIT win later, and Illinois Fighting Illini basketball has a new head coach.

No, neither Wichita State’s Gregg Marshall nor Dayton’s Archie Miller is heading to Champaign. Instead, Oklahoma State head coach Brad Underwood is upgrading his destination for the second time in two years.

If you are an Illini fan, buckle up because this road is set to get bumpy. 

Why?

Brad Underwood is John Groce 2.0.

“We were looking for a proven winner who would build upon our proud tradition while developing an unmistakable identity for Illinois Basketball,” said Illinois athletic director Josh Whitman in a statement. “Brad’s teams play a fast, aggressive style and show unyielding toughness.

“Off the court, Brad builds strong, personal relationships with his student-athletes. His winning combination of strong Midwest values and tenacious work ethic are a perfect fit for our community and the Illini Nation.”

Granted, unlike Groce, Underwood has experience coaching at a major university. The 53-year old finished the 2016-2017 season with a 20-13 record and a 10th seeded Cowboys squad that pushed Michigan to the brink yesterday. Though, that is the ONLY difference.

Underwood is an unproven leader who lived off a one-man team for three years. Think about it, without Thomas Walkup, the Stephen F. Austin Lumberjacks would have been nothing more than a mediocre team in the Southland Conference. Sounds familiar doesn’t? No? Groce did the same exact thing with D.J. Cooper (complemented by a young Nick Kellogg) during three years at Ohio University.

The comparison of NCAA Tournament upsets is impeccable. Underwood defeated 3rd seeded West Virginia in 2016, two years prior to dropping 5th seed VCU. Groce, in the same sense, defeated a 4th seeded Michigan, propelling the Bobcats to the Sweet Sixteen in 2012, which ALSO occurred two years before an upset of 3rd seeded Georgetown. 

There’s no question an 89-14 mark at the Division I level is impressive — after all, it doesn’t happen overnight. Once one sees the strength of schedule; however, the accomplishment becomes a different story. 

In three seasons, Underwood’s Lumberjacks had an average strength of schedule of -5.47. -5.47! 

Sure, he took advantage of Oklahoma State’s power conference status with non-conference matchups against Maryland and Wichita State this season. But, you must remember Oklahoma State basketball is heralded higher than Illinois; they have made the NCAA Tournament four of the last five years. Thus, do not expect non-conference showdowns with Wichita State and other powerhouse programs next season or even two years down the road. If you do, that’s unrealistic.

So, where does Illinois go from here?

The common philosophy is to allow a new head coach several years to adjust and build a great recruiting class. Ironically, John Groce has given Underwood the keys to a new Cadillac with incoming 4-star freshmen Jeremiah Tilmon and Da’Monte Williams, not to mention Florida grown Trent Frazier.

Is the future bright for Illinois? 

Absolutely.

Will it come as soon as next season? 

Don’t get your hopes up. Underwood couldn’t produce an over .500 conference record in the Big 12.

The Big Ten may not be any easier. 

— P. Wesner