Piper: Martin's Final Four run a fun look for Illini fans

Lead basketball reporter Derek Piper looks at Frank Martin's Final Four run at South Carolina and what it says about Brad Underwood's upcoming tenure at Illinois.

South Carolina and head coach Frank Martin are the best-told stories heading into the Final Four out in Phoenix this weekend.

With two programs playing in the Final Four for the first time ever and another reaching the semifinals for the first time since 1939, that's saying something.

But here you have a 7-seeded Gamecocks squad that rolled through 2-seeded Duke, 3-seeded Baylor and 4-seeded Florida to be the Cinderella story of the most entertaining ball you can watch on television. And they're not done dancing.

Ingrained in that story is a coach who has accomplished a phenomenal program rebuild, and a perception rebrand for himself as well. Martin isn't one you'd typically find in the discussion of really good coaches in college basketball. That's probably changing now.

Martin went to the dance in four of his five years as the head coach at Kansas State with a 117-54 overall record and an Elite Eight appearance. And now he's in the Final Four just five years after taking over a 10-win team and a program that needed much more than a few touchups.

Why does this matter on the Illini side of things? Well, new head coach Brad Underwood worked under Martin for all five of those seasons at Kansas State. He was the director of basketball operations the year prior when Martin was an assistant and Bob Huggins was the head coach.

Underwood became Martin's associate head coach during their final season in Manhattan, and he transitioned to South Carolina in that role in 2012. One year later, Underwood took the Stephen F. Austin job and jolted his fast-rising head coaching career.

During his introductory press conference in Champaign, Underwood mentioned the joy of watching Martin's team take down Duke to head to the Sweet Sixteen. That joy was shared by Illini fans, and by most fan bases across the country.

But knowing the coaching tree connection, there has been a special interest in this South Carolina team for the Orange and Blue faithful. It started with the Duke game, when Martin's squad took out one of the most talented and hottest teams in the dance at the outset.

Coach K said the Gamecocks were the best defense his team had faced all year. South Carolina grinds you at that end of the floor. They're in your face. They're invested. They're competing in a way that makes the other team uncomfortable.

Those are embodiments of their head coach. Take one look into Martin's eyes on the sideline and you'll know the deal.

Underwood is cut from that coaching cloth. And there are qualities that Illinois hopes to inherit in that.

"There's a sense of toughness that scares people," Underwood said in reference to Martin's South Carolina team.

"We'll lay a foundation and we'll do everything we can to become that as quickly as we can."

In Martin, you see a coach that's extremely demanding. He's demonstrative. On the outside, he can seem flat out scary.

But with that, you see accountability. You see determination. And you see players that love to play for him.

That comes from two things -- relationship and commitment. Martin connects with his players off the floor in a way that allows them to accept being pushed to their limits on it. The postgame reactions in this tournament have said it all about the bond this team has with their coach.


Underwood talked about having a similar philosophy. And he wants to recruit players that fit that style and mold.

Martin wrote about recruiting 'his guys' at South Carolina in an entry to The Players' Tribune last week.

"This is what I told them: If you want to get better … if you’re willing to listen … if you’re honest and you’re fearless about how hard you can work and how good you want to be … then playing for me will be a whole lot of fun," Martin wrote. 

"And if you don’t like to work … if you seek out excuses … if you’re not fueled to improve every day … then it won’t be fun to play for me. Not at all."

Expect no different out of Underwood in Champaign. And that kind of push that intertwines with tough love will be refreshing for most Illini fans to witness.

More on toughness. It's not exactly a new word being said around the Illini program. You could hear it uttered from John Groce's mouth on a daily basis.

But in relation to Illinois basketball, toughness oftentimes translated into more of a buzz word than a performed practice. Groce was tough in the form of resilience. And his teams had buy-in to that. Ultimately, not enough.

And furthermore, toughness is in more of a desired form when it's about delivering blows rather than seeing how many knockdown punches you can get up from. Therein lies a difference between Groce's teams and what Illinois hopes to have in store for the future.

That is an adaptation that needs to resonate throughout the program. Underwood's offensive numbers at Oklahoma State showed a team that hit you as well as anybody at that end of the floor.

But he admitted that his team wasn't as good as he wanted them to be defensively in Year One. Still, the protégé certainly understands the prototype.

Just as you see with Martin and Huggins-coached teams, Underwood's group at Stephen F. Austin was top-10 in the country in turnover percentage on defense all three years he was there. His team was No. 1 in the country in that category his final year there.

Ball-pressure. Attack. Take. Transition. It's a good formula.

"I like the thought of not allowing teams to do what they practice every single day," Underwood said.

It goes back to the 'uncomfortable' descriptor. When was the last time teams were uncomfortable about playing Illinois? It's been a minute. Or a decade.

The Illini came in at No. 11 in the AP all-time top 100 programs poll that was rolled out this week. Only Indiana preceded them on the Big Ten front. Meanwhile, Illinois topped the likes of Ohio State, Michigan State and Michigan. 

That shows the historic success of the program. But that's all it is right now. History.

Illinois used to be a team you didn't want to see on your schedule. In its former name, the Assembly Hall used to be a place you didn't dare want to enter. Not so scary now. 

But as we watch South Carolina in the Final Four this weekend -- as Underwood will do out in Phoenix -- Illini fans can take hope in a new regime. They can take hope in a new leader, who was tabbed as a "strong recruiter and excellent bench coach" by Martin himself.

And they can take in the sights of a great story in the final chapters of another spectacular NCAA tournament. All the while, hoping Underwood can take Illinois on the trail that his former boss has pathed.

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