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.

Northwestern kick returner Solomon Vault expected to miss entire 2017 season

Northwestern kick returner Solomon Vault expected to miss entire 2017 season

Northwestern is expected to be without kick returner and wide receiver Solomon Vault for the entirety of the upcoming 2017 season, according to a Friday report from Inside NU.

A Northwestern spokesman told the site that Vault underwent surgery for a lower-body injury and is expected to redshirt this fall.

Vault took back four kickoffs for touchdowns in his first three seasons, racking up 1,505 kick-return yards. Last season, he returned 23 kicks for 560 yards and a touchdown.

In addition to his value as a kick returner, though, Vault was also expected to play a larger role in the passing game this season. He transitioned from running back to wide receiver ahead of last season and caught 15 passes for 164 yards and a pair of touchdowns in 2016.

While the Wildcats have plenty of other options at wide receiver, it's a significant wrinkle in their challenge to replace the production of Austin Carr, last year's Big Ten Wide Receiver of the Year, who is on to a pro career in the NFL.

If Vault does redshirt this season, it means he will have one year of NCAA eligibility remaining.

Jalen Coleman-Lands reportedly transferring away from Illini

Jalen Coleman-Lands reportedly transferring away from Illini

The exodus out of Champaign continues, with Jalen Coleman-Lands reportedly the latest Illinois basketball player to leave the team in the aftermath of this spring's coaching change.

Coleman-Lands, perhaps the highest-rated recruit brought in during the John Grcoe Era, is set to transfer away from the program after two seasons with the Fighting Illini, per a report from's Evan Daniels.

As a sophomore this past season, the sharpshooting Coleman-Lands played in all 35 of the team's games and started 15 of them. He averaged eight points a game and shot 38 percent from 3-point range.

Coleman-Lands was a big deal when he was recruited out of the state of Indiana. Landing a highly touted Hoosier has been an historic rarity for the Illini, but Coleman-Lands picked Groce's program over offers from Arizona, Indiana, Memphis, Michigan, Michigan State, Notre Dame, Ohio State, Purdue, UCLA, Vanderbilt and Xavier, among others. He was a four-star recruit and ranked by Rivals as one of the top 40 prospects in the Class of 2015.

While Coleman-Lands was at times electric from behind the arc, he wasn't always consistent, hence his moving in and out of the starting lineup.

Coleman-Lands' departure is the latest in a busy offseason of roster transformation for the Illini, something not too unexpected given the decision to fire Groce after a largely unsuccessful five-year tenure and replace him with Brad Underwood. While Underwood is earning rave reviews from outside critics and has already made a huge recruiting splash in luring Illinois' Mr. Basketball, Mark Smith, to the Illini, it's understandable that players who committed to Groce would want to rethink things.

D.J. Williams preceded Coleman-Lands in transferring out of Champaign. And half of the blockbuster recruiting class Groce assembled prior to his firing — four-star recruit Jeremiah Tilmon and three-star recruit Javon Pickett — opted to play elsewhere. All that on top of the team's three leading scorers from last season — Malcolm Hill, Maverick Morgan and Tracy Abrams — exhausting their eligibility in Groce's final year.

Coleman-Lands' decision means Illinois will return just five scholarship players from last year's roster: Kipper Nichols, Te'Jon Lucas, Leron Black, Michael Finke and Aaron Jordan.

But there are reinforcements coming in Underwood's first season leading the program. Smith will be joined by a pair of freshman guards recruited by Groce: Trent Frazier and Da'Monte Williams. Plus, just Wednesday, the team announced the addition of Wright State graduate transfer Mark Alstork, who averaged 19 points a game last season.

Still, as is often the case with college basketball coaching changes, this is a dramatic evolution of a roster in just a couple of months.

And to top things off, Illinois fans might not even see Coleman-Lands leave the state. Internet chatter in recent days has mentioned that Coleman-Lands could be transferring to DePaul, where his high school coach was recently hired as one of Dave Leitao's assistants.