Illini season ends in NIT loss to Central Florida

Illini season ends in NIT loss to Central Florida

Well, at least the good news for the Illini is that the Brad Underwood Era can officially begin.

Illinois' 2016-17 campaign came to an end Wednesday night with a 68-58 loss to Central Florida in the NIT quarterfinals.

The Knights blitzed the Illini early, outscoring them 34-19 in the first half, and the lead stayed sizable until a late rally by the Illini got the gap down to as little as six in the closing minutes. But the Knights didn't let the Illini get any closer than that.

Illinois shot a miserable 30.6 percent on the night and had just one player score in double figures.

That player was Malcolm Hill, who had a monster game in the final outing of his college career. Hill scored 29 points, accounting for exactly half his team's total, and splashed home six 3-pointers.

Hill finished his career with 1,846 points, third on the program's all-time scoring list behind Deon Thomas and Kiwane Garris.

Tracy Abrams' career also ended Wednesday night. Abrams had been with the program for the last six seasons, finally playing his senior season this year after missing each of the last two campaigns with season-ending injuries.

The book closed on the John Groce Era. While the former head coach was fired prior to the Illini's three-game stay in this year's NIT, this was the official end of his five-year era in charge of the program.

Underwood, who was introduced as the program's new leader Monday, can now officially begin his tenure.

Big Ten Talk Podcast: Brad Underwood arrives in Champaign as new Illini head coach

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USA TODAY

Big Ten Talk Podcast: Brad Underwood arrives in Champaign as new Illini head coach

The Illini have a new leader.

In the latest edition of the Big Ten Talk Podcast, CSN's Vinnie Duber chats with new Illinois head basketball coach Brad Underwood and Illinois athletics director Josh Whitman as well as former Illini great Kendall Gill about Underwood's arrival as the new head basketball coach in Champaign.

Plus, Duber and Matt Maniscalco talk about the end of Northwestern's dream season and the three Big Ten teams remaining in the NCAA tournament.

Take a listen to the latest episode below.

Five takeaways from Brad Underwood's introduction as new Illini basketball coach

Five takeaways from Brad Underwood's introduction as new Illini basketball coach

Illinois introduced its new head men's basketball coach Monday afternoon, Brad Underwood taking the stage as John Groce's successor after an underachieving five years.

Underwood is getting rave reviews from those in the know, even if he isn't the most familiar name to folks in Big Ten Country. His uptempo style gives the Fighting Illini an identity, something athletics director Josh Whitman was looking to do with this hire, much like he was trying to do with the football program when he hired Lovie Smith.

There was plenty to digest from Whitman and Underwood's approximately 45-minute presser in Champaign, but here are five of the biggest takeaways from Monday's introduction.

Underwood is enamored by Illinois basketball

Underwood spent 10 seasons as an assistant coach at Western Illinois and got very familiar with Illinois' basketball tradition and the program's fervent fan base in the state.

Of course, it helped that during Underwood's time at Western, the Illini were going through some of their most glorious days, and he got to experience that atmosphere at what was then still called Assembly Hall. Western went to Champaign to play Illinois once during the Lon Kruger Era, twice during the Bill Self Era and once during the Bruce Weber Era, a total of four trips in five years.

Perhaps seeing the arena at its most rocking — that last game came the season before Illinois' run to the national championship game — Underwood got the feeling that this was what big-time college hoops was all about.

"I spent 10 years in this state from 1993 to 2003, and at that time I learned how important the Illini Nation was and how powerful. And basketball was special here," Underwood said. "We came in here and took a few whoopings in here when I was at Western with (Kruger and Self) coaching.

"When this arena's full, it's one of the greatest home courts ever. It's impactful."

Underwood even had a great anecdote about how his son's first basketball jersey was that of former Illini great Brian Cook.

Whitman didn't hire a former Illinois player or a former Illinois assistant or someone with close ties to the school and its past. But it seems that he did the next best thing in bringing in someone who had a first-hand experience of those glory days, which is where Whitman wants to program to return.

"He cares a lot about the University of Illinois, and he wants to be here," Whitman said. "We want people who want to be a part of the Fighting Illini family, who understand and embrace the great tradition, the great opportunity that we have in Illinois basketball and in Fighting Illini athletics. This place is special, and we want people here who understand how special it is. And we found one of those people in Brad Underwood."

Whitman found another believer

It's becoming increasingly clear that despite the positive hires of Underwood and Smith, Illinois' greatest asset continues to be Whitman.

A little more than a year ago, when Whitman introduced Smith as the school's new football coach, Smith kept talking about how good a job Whitman did of selling him on the future of Illini athletics and his belief that the football program could become a winning one.

Well, consider Underwood the latest believer in Whitman's vision for Illinois.

"His pride in this university is incredible, and that exudes and that resonates," Underwood said. "I have tremendous value in that, I put tremendous stock in that. He didn't have to sell me. As soon as I found out (Illinois was interested), there wasn't (any selling needed). But the 'we will win'? That's what I'm about.

"It's important. When you have your boss believe that and the commitment that they make to being successful in all sports, that's very, very important. And I didn't need any more than that. I knew the history, I knew the tradition, I knew the great players, I knew how good this conference is.

"That's the reason."

Underwood uttered that last sentence while pointing at his new athletics director.

It was perhaps an important insight into why Underwood left Oklahoma State after just one season, as it was reported that the relationship with the athletics director there wasn't the best and was perhaps the main reason he departed.

But just like Whitman sold Smith on committing to Illinois, he's done the same with Underwood. And now he's completely reshaped the two biggest programs in his department in a little more than a year.

Underwood's style is coming to Illinois

It certainly seems that the most notable difference to this program will come on the court, where Underwood's teams have played and won with a fast-paced, high-scoring, defensively intense style of play over the past three seasons.

For three years at Stephen F. Austin and this past season at Oklahoma State, Underwood's teams have scored a whole mess of points, done it really fast and done it with a lot of effort on the defensive end of the floor.

"I like to play uptempo," Underwood said. "I like to play in your face defensively. I like to take advantage, on the offensive end, of every option that's available. We weren't the biggest team in the country at Stephen F. Austin, in fact, we were one of the smallest. We weren't the biggest team at Oklahoma State, yet we've always been one of the top rebounding teams. We were top 10 in the country in offensive rebounding this year, we were one of the top free-throw shooting teams in the country. All ways to score other than just through offense.

"Like to play fast, we were one of the best teams in the country in scoring in the first seven seconds (of the shot clock). We were a very good shooting team. There will be a certain skill set that we will recruit to. But we are very committed to a style of play. The one thing I know we will have is we will have an identity on both sides of the court. And starts with a great foundation, and we will build from there. We might have to tweak some things here or there based on personnel, but we're going to be a team that plays with a lot of passion and shows up to work every single day."

That should be a mighty noticeable change for Illini fans. Not that Groce's teams didn't play with great effort and intensity, but Underwood's style is very obviously different from that of other teams. He was an assistant under Bob Huggins, still in the NCAA tournament thanks to "Press Virginia," and Frank Martin, whose South Carolina team just defensively flustered the heck out of Duke to punch a ticket to the Sweet Sixteen.

"I like the thought of not allowing teams to do what they practice every single day. If I can take them out of it, I think I can beat them," Underwood said. "Analytics play a big part of what we do on the offensive end. The game is changing. ... I've taken a lot of what I've learned from other people and tried to make it fit my personality."

"There's a sense of toughness that scares people, to be quite honest. I think it comes from a commitment from the head coach to work on (the defensive) end and to emphasize that. ... Huggs is a Hall of Fame coach. His teams are physical, and that's a big part of what we do in terms of getting our athletes in the weight room, helping them become the best athletes they can be. We'll lay a foundation, and we'll do everything we can to become that as quickly as we can."

That could be quite quick, actually, as Underwood was able to morph Oklahoma State into his kind of team in just one year being there. After ranking 303rd in scoring offense the season before he arrived, the Cowboys were the No. 6 scoring team in the country this season.

"There's no question that Brad Underwood's teams have a strong identity," Whitman said. "It's built on toughness, it's built on intensity, there's a tenacity to the way his teams play that resonates very strongly with me and I think will resonate very strongly with our fans. I'm excited about seeing those teams take the court. That bleeds into their style of play. They move fast, they're aggressive, they get in your face on defense, they get the shot up. It was fun to think about Brad Underwood teams being out here on the State Farm Center court, watching the way they get up and down the floor, watching the way they compete, watching the emotion and the excitement and the enthusiasm about wearing the orange and blue."

Underwood is ready to recruit the state of Illinois

Rightly or wrongly, the Illinois head-coaching position seems to be judged by the public on how well a coach can recruit the Chicago area.

Obviously there's no argument that Chicago produces some of the best if not the best high school basketball talent in the country. But why geography alone should make Illinois expected to compete with the likes of Duke, Kentucky and Kansas on the recruiting trail has always been a bit of a mystery.

Anyway, Underwood laid out his commitment to recruiting the whole state of Illinois, suggesting that not just Chicago but the entire Land of Lincoln does things differently than other states across the country, giving those who recruit throughout the state an advantage in the kind of player they're getting.

"Every young person in this state that played basketball grew up wanting to be a part of this," Underwood said. "I thought I was from a basketball state, I really did, in Kansas, where I grew up. Nothing like this. This is the best high school basketball in the country, it's got great coaches, it's got great talent, and the fan support and the community support was just something that made a huge impact on me. To go to a high school game on a Tuesday or Friday night and see towns shut down and everybody there. At the time, I came here to see state tournaments and see this arena packed, made a huge impact.

"There's no question that this state produces a lot of elite talent. And we're the University of Illinois. Chicago, downstate, wherever, we want the best players in this state to come to this university. We're going to do everything we can to recruit those players. Keeping players at home is a vital part of any program's success. But here we have a plethora of good players, and keeping them here is very, very important to us.

"You all may care if they're four-star of five-star (recruits). I don't. Recruiting to me is like beauty, it's in the eye of the beholder. And it's about putting pieces of a puzzle together and the identity you create and the passion. We always recruit here (in Illinois) because of how well these young men are coached. There's tremendous high school coaching here. That doesn't happen everywhere. You take it for granted because you're here. Believe me, it doesn't happen everywhere. And so when you can get young people who are prepared and have been through the rigors of being coached and taught the fundamentals, that's pretty important to me."

Underwood, Whitman both envision big things

It's no surprise that an introductory press conference starting a new era of a program was going to be full of rosy language and visions of great success.

But Whitman's goal has been to bring this program back to what it was a decade ago, an era when the Illini came one win shy of winning the national championship.

The athletics director's "we will win" mantra, started over at the football program, has now migrated to basketball, as well, and a commitment to restoring winning traditions on both sides of Kirby Avenue is very apparent.

Whitman found a football partner in Smith, and he's found a basketball one now in Underwood.

"He's a proven winner," Whitman said. "And we tell people that the best predictor of future success is past performance. You look at what his teams have done, it is nothing short of remarkable. They set records in terms of their on-court performance. He's someone who develops players and develops programs. You look at the programs that he's come into, how they performed before they arrived and how they performed after, and it is remarkably different. And that's not a coincidence."

Will Underwood do that in Champaign?

When coaching changes occur at big programs, the word "elite" gets thrown around, and it was and remains difficult to suggest Illinois fits that description, a word used to describe the perennial championship contenders at Duke, North Carolina, Kentucky, Kansas, Michigan State and elsewhere.

But the right coach can transform a program into an elite one. Maybe Underwood can make that happen at Illinois.

"I've felt this was an elite program," Underwood said. "As Josh and I visited, that resonated with me. I use the term a lot — I dream big. It's a cliche that obviously I didn't come up with. But I do, I dream big. And I dream bigger. And winning a national championship is something that can happen here, and I want to be a part of that. I want to help lead this program to that.

"When you're at an elite program in an elite conference like the Big Ten — and obviously they're having a tremendous NCAA tournament — all things are possible. And that's something that I was drawn to."