CHAMPAIGN - I continually asked myself during the John Groce era, "What can you count on this team to do every night?"
Besides "inconsistency," I couldn't come up with an answer. Groce's ball-screen offense never reached Michigan levels because he never recruited the dynamic point guard he truly needed. His defenses gradually worsened as the roster filled more with his recruits.
That identity crisis was a problem -- one acknowledged by Josh Whitman.
So after dismissing Groce after four straight missed NCAA Tournaments, the Illinois athletics director set out to find a coach with a distinctive style of play proven to work.
He landed on Brad Underwood, whose pace-and-space offense and in-your-face defense dominated the Southland Conference in three seasons at Stephen F. Austin and flipped Oklahoma State's record from 12-20 to 20-12 during his lone season in Stillwater.
"I think we've lacked that identity and I want our program to do the things he embodies: the toughness, the intensity," Whitman said Monday after he officially introduced Underwood as the 18th men's basketball coach in Illini history. "That I think resonates strongly with me, both as an individual and as an athletic director. I'm really happy we'll be able to bring that style to our court. I think our fans will embrace it. I think our recruits will embrace it . I think it's a style people want to play in. They want to get out and get up in peoples' faces. They want to play hard and fast. That part to me was culture, the identity of the athletic program. Also, the way I thought it would resonate with our fans and on the recruiting side."
'Toughness that scares people'
Underwood's style is the culmination of almost 30 years in the business, six as a junior-college head coach, 12 under former Western Illinois coach Jim Kerwin, one under Bob Huggins, six under Frank Martin and four as a Division-I head coach (three at Stephen F. Austin and one at Oklahoma State).
"I've taken a lot of what I've learned from different people and tried to make it fit my personality," Underwood said. "All had distinctive styles. They all fit my personality. Even back when I was a junior-college coach, I played an aggressive style on the defensive end."
Groce's teams always seemed to react to other team's styles. Like Huggins and Martin -- who both advanced to the Sweet 16 last weekend -- Underwood dictates his style onto the opponent.
"I like the thought of not allowing teams to do what they practice every single day," Underwood said. "If I can take them out of that, I think I can beat them."
Like Huggins' "Press Virginia" defense, Underwood's teams have been elite at forcing turnovers. Stephen F. Austin ranked seventh, fifth and first overall in defensive turnover percentage in Underwood's three seasons in Nacogdoches. In his first season at Oklahoma State, he improved the Cowboys from 210th in the country in defensive turnover percentage to 55th.
"There's a sense of toughness that scares people, to be quite honest," Underwood said. "I think it comes from a commitment from the coach to work on that end and to emphasize that."
'Run really hard and play hard'
Underwood's offense isn't really all that "fast." This season's Oklahoma State team was his first to finish top-100 in the country in adjusted tempo (possessions per 40 minutes adjusted for opponent). But his offenses do push the pace.
Underwood, a big believer in analytics, talks often about how he wants his teams to push the ball up the court and shoot within the first seven seconds of the 30-second shot clock. His Oklahoma State team finished 23rd in the country in percentage of total field goal attempts in transition.
"Numerically and analytically, it's the weakest part of the defense," Underwood said. "Teams struggle in transition from one end of the court to the other. It's really not that complicated. Just get your guys to run really hard and play hard."
But Underwood doesn't want his teams simply to chuck it up in transition on every trip up the court.
"If it's not there, I'm a big believer of the end of the shot clock and making the defense move," Underwood said. "We've been one of the most efficient teams, even when I was at Stephen F. because of ball movement, because of our ability to take advantage of mismatches and then our ability to play quickly."
Underwood's teams also ferociously attack the offensive glass. All three of his Stephen F. Austin teams were among the shortest 20 teams in the country, but the Lumberjacks finished 12th, 14th and 53rd in the country in offensive rebound percentage during those seasons. In his first season at Oklahoma State, he improved the Cowboys' offensive rebound percentage ranking from 200th in the country to fourth.
"We try to take advantage of the offensive glass as another opportunity to score," Underwood said. "And, I'm of the philosophy that the closer you are to the basket the better chance you have to score."
That's a breath of fresh air at Illinois. During the last three seasons, the Illini have ranked in the bottom-three in the country in percentage of shots attempted at the rim (high-percentage shots) and in the top-15 in percentage of two-point jumper attempts, seen by analysts as the worst shot in basketball due to its low percentage and lower reward than a three-point attempt.
"Analytics play a big part of what we do on the offensive end," Underwood said. "The game is changing."
The stats suggest Underwood could immediately make over how the Illini play.
Oklahoma State improved from 153rd in offensive efficiency in Travis Ford's last season to first under Underwood. The Cowboys improved from 200th in offensive rebound percentage to fourth. They improved from 251st in three-point percentage (32.8 pecent) to seventh (40.8 percent). They improved from 210th in defensive turnover percentage to 55th.
Could Underwood do it quickly again with the Illini's personnel? He certainly has a lot of work to do, including finding talented players who fit his scheme. Also, Illinois currently ranks 114th in offensive efficiency, 187th in offensive rebound percentage and 199th in defensive turnover percentage.
"We'll lay a foundation and we'll do everything we can to become that as quickly as we can," Underwood said. "The one thing I know we will have is we will have an identity on both sides of the court. That starts with a great foundation and we will go from there. We may have to tweak some things here and 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."
After leaving Oklahoma State just one season into his contract, Underwood seems locked into Illinois for a while -- his buyout after one season is $8.5 million, after two seasons $7.4 million and after three seasons $6.3 million. And Whitman obviously is committed to Underwood, giving him a six-year, $18 million contract.
It may take some time to develop that style and identity. After all, Martin's South Carolina teams didn't truly take off until his fourth and fifth seasons in Columbia, S.C.
But Whitman is eager see Underwood's style of play take the court. It's a big reason he stole away Underwood from Oklahoma State.
"It was fun to think about Brad Underwood teams being out here on the State Farm Center court," Whitman said. "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."