While Illinois was busy fighting for an NIT championship, the school went an hired a full-time replacement for John Groce. Interestingly enough, the team has played remarkably well under interim-coach Jamall Walker, but decided to hire Brad Underwood to lead the team going forward.
Honestly, the hiring of Underwood came completely out of left field. Just one year ago, he was a hot shot mid-major coach in search of his first big-time gig, eventually finding it at Oklahoma State.
In his first year in Stillwater, Underwood led the Cowboys to their first 20-win season since 2013-14 and also made the NCAA Tournament. In his four years as a Division-1 basketball coach, he has made the Big Dance every single year. (Three appearances at Stephen F. Austin).
So why would Underwood leave a job in the Big-12 to take over a downtrodden Illinois program?
On the surface, it could be a matter of simple dollars and cents.
At Oklahoma State, Underwood was the lowest paid coach in the Big-12 conference. He pulled down $1 million in his first year, with a mere $100,000 raise coming in 2017-18. Nearly every other coach in the conference was earning over $2 million, so you can understand why he sought greener pastures.
Illinois tripled Underwood’s former salary, extending him a six-year contract that will pay him over $3 million per year. In addition, the Fighting Illini also agreed to a $3 million buy-out with Oklahoma State, meaning Illinois will have spent over $6 million for Underwood’s first season in Champaign.
Money aside, Underwood has made it appear as if he is at Illinois for the long haul.
According to the Chicago Tribune, Underwood called the opportunity a “dream job”, continuing that he would be a “lifer” at Illinois.
He has deep ties to the Land of Lincoln, having been an assistant coach at Western Illinois from 1992-2003.
When talking about his time with the Leathernecks, Underwood said he could see how important the Illinois job was.
“During my time at Western Illinois, I always saw the Illinois coaching job as one of the truly best in the nation.”
Underwood inherits a decent team who may in fact win this year’s NIT. However, in Champaign, aspirations are much higher than second-tier postseason tournaments. After all, nothing shows you’re serious about your program like paying the head coach $3 million per year.
Next year, Brad Underwood will have a plethora of talented freshman coming in, including four different four-star recruits. Coupled with young stars like Kipper Nichols, Te’Jon Lucas, and Leron Black, the program should have a solid group to build off of.
Under John Groce, the Fighting Illini had a difficult time with consistency on offense. They ranked a mere No. 114 in offensive efficiency, averaging only 72.1 points per game. Also, on 10 different occasions, they were held to 55 points or less.
Brad Underwood seems to have the cure for Illinois problems, which was a large factor in why they brought him in. In his lone season at Oklahoma State, his team ranked No. 1 in the nation in offensive efficiency, posting 85.7 points per game (No. 5 in the nation).
It remains to be seen how long it will take for Underwood to get the program back on top of the Big Ten, but by the looks of it, he will definitely get them there.