Ten immediate reactions to Illinois' hiring of Brad Underwood away from Oklahoma State to be its new head men's basketball coach, from a devoted alumnus.
1. As usual, athletic director Josh Whitman is brilliant at keeping his cards close to his chest. Remember how out-of-nowhere the Lovie Smith hire was? No one knew anything, that he was even a candidate, until Whitman posted a picture of himself and Smith on Twitter.
Well, he did it again.
Whitman declined to use a search firm in order to minimize leaks, and it worked one more time. No one had any idea that Underwood was even available, and then all of a sudden wham there he is posing in Illini gear with Whitman. Whitman is an Illini alum and a true believer in Illinois as an elite, top-tier program. He has been on the job for one year and has already fired the football coach and the men's and women's basketball coaches. He is not messing around.
2. Oklahoma State fans probably have a right to be upset. Leaving after one season as a team's head coach is awfully rare in college sports, but that's what Underwood did. There were reports that the Cowboys would give him a raise after underpaying him in his first year, but Underwood wasn't waiting around for that. Oklahoma State is a proud program that hasn't won a tournament game since 2009, a shocking drought for a school with such a history of success in the sport. Now the Cowboys have to start over again. It's not a happy day in Stillwater.
3. Underwood is a very good coach. Underwood coached Stephen F. Austin for three seasons, in which the Lumberjacks lost a total of 14 games. This season, under his replacement, they lost 15. In 2015-16, before it hired Underwood, Oklahoma State lost 20 games. In 2016-17, the year it Underwood (with essentially the same players), Oklahoma State won 20 games and reached the NCAA Tournament (losing by one to Michigan on Friday). That's quite a track record.
4. He's a new-school, pace-and-space guy. The Cowboys had the most efficient offense in the country, according to KenPom, this year, with a team that started 0-6 in Big 12 play. His teams are point-guard-oriented, charged with spreading the floor and hitting 3-pointers. In other words: He's the analytics-based coach the Illini originally thought they were getting in John Groce.
5. He already talks like his athletic director. Whitman has electrified previously demoralized Illini fans by appealing to their nostalgia for better days of the past, back when Illinois was a regular Sweet 16 participant and Final Four threat. He talks about Illinois the way Illinois fans think of Illinois, a decade of evidence to the contrary: like an elite, top-tier program. Here's Underwood's quote in the press release: "I always saw the Illinois coaching job as one of the truly best in the nation." There is literally nothing he could have said that Illinois fans would have wanted to hear more.
6. He has immediate work to do. Groce brought in a top-15 class for next season, a class so impressive that some thought it might allow him to keep his job next year. Underwood needs to work to keep those guys around, namely Jeremiah Tilmon, a top-50 overall center. Sleeper point guard Mark Smith, who has rocketed up boards in his senior year, grew up an Illini fan and was waiting to see whom the new coach would be. Underwood needs to get to work selling quickly.
7. Underwood's first job has plenty of Illini history.
Here's another fun thing for Illini fans: Like this guy, Underwood started his coaching career at Hardin-Simmons. pic.twitter.com/ZpdbcJRAnN- Will Leitch (@williamfleitch) March 18, 2017
8. There won't be much of a honeymoon period. Illinois hasn't been in the tournament since the 2012-13 season. The Illini will have more talent on next year's team than Oklahoma State was thought to have coming into this season, and that's not even accounting for those recruits. Illinois is thought to be a bubble team next year. It would do Underwood well to get the Illini on the right side of it. The Illini faithful are a particularly impatient bunch these days.
9. This was the best possible hire. Where would Underwood have been on Illini potential coaches lists if anyone had been aware he was available? Probably at the top, right? You don't think Indiana -- a better job than Illinois that just came open -- would have kicked the tires? The Illini weren't getting Tony Bennett, or Archie Miller, or Gregg Marshall, and they probably wouldn't have been the right fit anyway. This hire surprised people, and it instantly gives Illinois a coach who plays an exciting style and has been wildly successful everywhere he has been. As an Illini alum, I'm doing backflips.
10. Writing this was a lot better than watching Northwestern play in the NCAA Tournament, which was happening as I typed this. Evanston's Third Big Ten Team has become a legitimate underdog story -- in the face of all logic and reason -- at the NCAA Tournament, while the Illini get ready to host Boise State in the NIT. Brad Underwood's job is to make sure nothing like this travesty ever, ever happens again.