Big Ten

Like he did with Lovie Smith and football, Josh Whitman's hire of Brad Underwood brings a new identity to Illini basketball

Like he did with Lovie Smith and football, Josh Whitman's hire of Brad Underwood brings a new identity to Illini basketball

Most folks in Big Ten Country might not know exactly what to expect from new Illinois head basketball coach Brad Underwood.

But it looks like Josh Whitman has done something similar with the basketball program to what he did with the football program when he hired Lovie Smith a little more than a year ago.

The football program was floundering under Tim Beckman and Bill Cubit, seemingly rudderless with a whole bunch of losing going on down in Champaign. Smith's hiring brought instant credibility and a jolt of energy to a program that desperately needed it, but most importantly it gave the Illini an identity.

Anyone who watched Smith's NFL teams, be they Bears fans or not, knew instantly what kind of football he liked to play. He was a defensive guy who made his Bears teams some of the best defensive squads the league had seen in a long time. The turnover-driven defensive mentality followed Smith from Chicago to Tampa Bay, and while it might take him a little while longer to implement it in Champaign, there's no doubt that's what he's trying to do at Illinois.

Even if you didn't watch Oklahoma State or weren't familiar with Stephen F. Austin outside of a couple NCAA tournament games, it doesn't take much digging to know what Underwood likes to do. He likes to score a whole lot of points.

So say hello to Illinois basketball's new identity.

The Cowboys were the No. 6 scoring offense in the nation this season, averaging 85.7 points a game. Illinois, in case you were wondering, averaged 72.1 points a game, good for 198th nationally.

But the difference between Smith's arrival and Underwood's might be that you won't need to expect a football-style waiting period for the new identity to take root. Underwood spent just one season in Stillwater. The year before he got there, the Cowboys averaged 66.5 points a game and ranked 303rd out of 346 Division-I teams. Meanwhile, his Stephen F. Austin Lumberjacks averaged 80.2 points a game and ranked 23rd in the country.

So, while Underwood might run into some more challenging defenses in the Big Ten than he did in the Southland Conference or even the Big 12, there's a good reason to believe that Illinois can change into a very different team overnight.

And isn't this what Whitman was trying to do? That was his goal with his football hire, bringing in someone who could put a definitive stamp on a program that had lost its way or didn't have one to begin with. John Groce is a good man who couldn't win many meaningful basketball games at Illinois, and while he frequently repeated his "toughness and togetherness" line, those intangible concepts don't resonate as much as more than 80 points a game would.

Underwood might not be the guy Illinois fans expected. Though no one expected Smith, either.

Again Whitman acted fast and acted to define one of his school's major programs. And whether success comes or not, he's made a bold statement once more.

Purdue putting Michigan on upset alert? Week 4 Big Ten previews and picks

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USA TODAY

Purdue putting Michigan on upset alert? Week 4 Big Ten previews and picks

Big Ten play is starting with an unexpected bang.

Yeah, Ohio State and Indiana tussled at the end of August, but now we’re really getting into conference play and who thought we’d be so excited about Michigan-Purdue and Penn State-Iowa?

Give plenty of credit where credit is due, to Jeff Brohm and Kirk Ferentz for getting some surprising results out of their teams early on this season. The Boilers have arguably been the biggest story of the Big Ten through three weeks, capping an intriguing non-conference slate with a 35-3 pounding of Mizzou last weekend, suddenly setting up an upset possibility for big, bad Michigan. Meanwhile, Iowa has looked as good with new quarterback Nathan Stanley as it did with C.J. Beathard, even if the competition hasn’t been world-beaters. Now a matchup with a top-five Penn State team is being talked about as a potential shootout.

I say bring it on! It could be a real fun weekend in the Big Ten, and you can get previews and picks for every game below.

All games played on Saturday, Sept. 23.

UNLV at No. 10 Ohio State, 11 a.m., Big Ten Network

Another good opportunity for the Buckeyes to keep the good feelings going after last week’s course-correcting win over Army. J.T. Barrett, J.K. Dobbins and all of the initialed and non-initialed Ohio State players should have ample opportunity to score points against a UNLV team that allowed 43 in a loss to Howard earlier this month.

The pick: Ohio State

UCF at Maryland, 2 p.m., FS1

Last week felt a little empty without the high-octane Terps on the college football calendar. Maryland has scored 114 points in two games this season. Meanwhile, UCF hasn’t played since Aug. 31, its last two games cancelled due to the recent hurricane that swept through Florida. The Knights put up some points in that game, though, scoring 61 against Florida International. Maybe we’re in for a shootout?

The pick: Maryland

Rutgers at Nebraska, 2:30 p.m., Big Ten Network

The Huskers are in a dire situation all of a sudden, with athletics director Shawn Eichorst fired from his post earlier this week. That cranks up the heat on Mike Riley’s already mighty-hot hot seat. Bottom line is Nebraska is in need of a win, and there’s no better conference foe to get that win against than Rutgers. While a Huskers win usually seems like a safe bet against the Big Ten’s worst program — and a team that gave Eastern Michigan its first Power Five win ever two weeks back — that defense has been horrendous against the likes of Arkansas State, and Tanner Lee couldn’t keep the ball out of the hands of Northern Illinois’ defense last week. There’s no good pick here, but if Nebraska loses, things will go from real, real bad to even worse for that program.

The pick: Nebraska

Georgia Southern at Indiana, 2:30 p.m., Big Ten Network

The Hoosiers are back in action after last week’s game was cancelled due to the hurricane. After the partially good showing against Ohio State and a predictable win over Virginia, Indiana should score an easy one this weekend against Georgia Southern. The Eagles have scored just 19 points in their two games this season, including a 22-12 loss to FCS foe New Hampshire. Blech.

The pick: Indiana

No. 8 Michigan at Purdue, 3 p.m., FOX

This one went from afterthought to much anticipated real quick. Thank the Boilermakers, who went into an SEC stadium last weekend and came away with a dominating 35-3 victory, making this look like a much different program under Jeff Brohm than the one we’ve seen for the past half decade or so. The offense will get deserved hype for its high power. Purdue’s scored 79 points in the last two games. But a defense that kept MIzzou out of the end zone could have a similar effect on a Michigan offense that has struggled mightily so far this season. Taking away all of Wilton Speight’s pass-catchers was going to obviously have an effect, but that side of the ball hasn’t been able to reload as easily as the defense and Speight & Co. look stuck in the mud. The Wolverines definitely have the ability to slow down the Boilers, but can they score any points themselves? While Michigan fans will surely be freaking out if this is a close game — something they might want to get used to this season if the first three performances are any indication — a close one wouldn’t be at all out of the question, which in and of itself should reflect wonderfully on Brohm. That being said, the best unit on the field is the Wolverines’ defense. And remember that David Blough and Elijah Sindelar teamed up to throw three picks in Purdue's season-opening loss to Louisville.

The pick: Michigan

No. 4 Penn State at Iowa, 6:30 p.m., ABC

Here’s another one that might have seemed like blowout material just a few weeks back but since has gained a lot of intrigue. Iowa has been pretty darn impressive through three weeks, 3-0 and riding high thanks to the play of new quarterback Nathan Stanley, who’s thrown 10 touchdown passes compared to just one interception in three games. Akrum Wadley’s been expectedly great, too, and that defense has shone in its two home games, holding Wyoming and North Texas to a combined 17 points. Of course, I’m conveniently leaving out the 44-41 shootout win over Iowa State, a phenomenally entertaining game in which the offense looked great but in which the defense didn’t. And now arguably the most explosive offense in college football comes to town. Penn State has predictably beaten up on its first three opponents, with Trace McSorley and Saquon Barkley looking like the Heisman candidates they are. While the Hawkeyes deserve credit for making this one closer than anyone could have thought, the Nittany Lions’ offense seems like too much to handle. For just about any defense.

The pick: Penn State

Notre Dame at Michigan State, 7 p.m., FOX

These two teams played just last season before teaming to go 7-17 in a pair of real disappointing campaigns. Notre Dame has shown it can dominate on the ground and it did just that against a Boston College team that typically has one of the better defenses in the country. That didn’t show last week, though, as the Irish racked up 515 rushing yards. Michigan State’s rush defense numbers are good through two games, but with those wins coming against MAC teams, who knows? Notre Dame has at least played Georgia, albeit with poor results, but Michigan State has done very little to give any indication of what kind of football team it is this season. This seems a complete toss up to me, but I’ll go with the team that’s pounded weak competition vs. the team that’s soundly beaten weak competition.

The pick: Notre Dame

See how they stack up: Week 3 college football top 25 rankings

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USA TODAY

See how they stack up: Week 3 college football top 25 rankings

With Week 3 in the books, here’s my top 25.

1. Clemson (3-0)

The defending champs are looking like repeat candidates in the season’s early going, following up a lockdown of Auburn with a throttling of a Louisville team that boasts the reigning Heisman winner.

2. Oklahoma (3-0)

Baker Mayfield and the boys didn’t slow down the Sooner Schooner one bit after the win at Ohio State. Mayfield added 331 yards and four touchdown passes to his Heisman resume in a win over Tulane.

3. Alabama (3-0)

The Tide keep rolling, even if Clemson and Oklahoma have turned in more impressive wins. Bama blew out Colorado State this weekend and gets a surprisingly undefeated Vandy team in its SEC opener.

4. Oklahoma State (3-0)

The competition has been anything but fierce, but Okie State looks unstoppable. Mason Rudolph added nearly 500 yards and five more touchdowns to his Heisman resume this weekend. Bring on Bedlam.

5. Penn State (3-0)

The Lions have two Heisman candidates in their backfield, and they keep turning in monster days. Things could finally get tricky for Trace McSorley and Saquon Barkley with Iowa in the Big Ten opener.

6. USC (3-0)

The double-OT win over Texas was one of the best games of the young season. You might have seen shaky play against a bad team. I saw the clutch-est of strips from Christian Rector, a season-saver.

7. Wisconsin (3-0)

The Badgers are absolutely blasting every team they come into contact with these days, the highest-scoring offense in the Big Ten. And now they have a passing attack? Look out.

8. Virginia Tech (3-0)

Things didn’t start so hot for the Hokies against East Carolina, but they ended up dropping 64 points on the Pirates. Josh Jackson has nine total touchdowns and zero interceptions this season.

9. Georgia (3-0)

A 3-0 record and a true freshman at quarterback? Impressive. If the Dawgs can beat their fellow canines in Saturday’s matchup against Mississippi State, then they’ve got something special going on.

10. Michigan (3-0)

The Wolverines’ offense is making folks nervous, and rightfully so with Wilton Speight’s unit not doing much impressing. But the defense continues to look awesome, so stay away from the panic button.

11. West Virginia (2-1)

Since looking good in a one-possession loss to Virginia Tech, the Mountaineers have scored 115 points in their last two games. Will Grier is already over 1,000 yards on the season. In three games!

12. Mississippi State (3-0)

This was supposed to be LSU’s breakout game, but it was Mississippi State’s instead. A jaw-dropping pounding by the Bulldogs, who held the Bayou Bengals to 270 yards.

13. Ohio State (2-1)

If only the Buckeyes could play Army every week, right? The offensive problems have not been exorcised, one must imagine, but Ohio State has a star in running back J.K. Dobbins. Feed him the ball.

14. TCU (3-0)

So much for TCU’s defensive dominance, giving up 36 points to SMU. But the Frogs’ have an offense, too, scoring 56 points on 619 yards. TCU’s outscored opponents 147-43 in three games.

15. Oregon (3-0)

It’s becoming obvious that Josh Allen just isn’t very good when he plays good teams, but still give the Ducks credit for thumping Wyoming. This is really looking like the Oregon teams of old.

16. Vanderbilt (3-0)

Is it up to the Dores to stand in the way of Bama’s annual conquest of the SEC? Vandy's been a feel-good story so far and beat a very good Kansas State team to stay perfect.

17. Duke (3-0)

The Devils can’t stop scoring, and it appears they won’t stop scoring. Three games in and Duke has scored 135 points. Oh, and the Duke defense forced four turnovers in the win over Baylor.

18. Maryland (2-0)

An off week for the Turtles, but Maryland still has the No. 2 scoring offense in college football, averaging 57 points a game!

19. Louisville (2-1)

I don’t blame the Cards for losing to Clemson, but there’s clearly something up with the Louisville defense. It’s allowed 28, 35 and 47 points in three games against Purdue, North Carolina and Clemson.

20. Miami (1-0)
21. Florida State (0-1)

The aftermath of Hurricane Irma postponed what would’ve been a much-anticipated matchup between these two rivals. They’ve still only played one game apiece.

22. Washington State (3-0)

Mike Leach’s team has been predictably good at scoring points. In three games, it has put up 130 of them. A USC-Oregon-Cal stretch, however, lies on the other side of Saturday’s game against Nevada.

23. Iowa (3-0)

The Hawkeyes have been mighty impressive through three games. New quarterback Nathan Stanley leads the Big Ten with 10 touchdown passes, and Iowa has 99 points in three wins.

24. Cal (3-0)

It wasn’t the prettiest game between Cal and Ole Miss, with a bunch of turnovers. But the Golden Bears won the second half 20-0 and came back to move to 3-0.

25. Auburn (2-1)

Auburn’s lack of offense against Clemson is looking more and more understandable. But only beating Mercer 24-10 is going to take some explaining.

Others receiving votes:

San Diego State (3-0)

CSNChicago.com White Sox Insider Dan Hayes will appreciate the Aztecs love. They’ve got two wins over Pac-12 teams already this season, including a takedown of Stanford — Stanford! —this weekend.

Washington (3-0)

You’re almost there, Huskies. Win at Colorado like you won easy home games against Montana and Fresno State and you’ll be ranked.

Texas Tech (2-0)

The Red Raiders will never not score a million points. The strength of schedule has actually been decent, too, 108 points in two wins over strong FCS program Eastern Washington and Pac-12 foe Arizona State.

Memphis (2-0)

Through three weeks, the Game of the Year award goes to Memphis’ win over UCLA. The highly entertaining four hours featured a billion points — and some key defensive plays by Memphis.

Kansas State (2-1)

Narrowly missing out on a big road win at Vandy. K-State is still a good team and held a 3-0 SEC team to 270 total yards.

South Florida (3-0)

You don’t get too much love for beating up on the Illini, but USF’s offense has been very good so far in 2017 — despite the slow starts. Nearly 700 yards in Friday night’s win.