CHAMPAIGN, ILL. • It’s been six days since Illinois played a basketball game. Six very unusual days.
In that time athletics director Josh Whitman conducted a one-man, whirlwind search and hired Oklahoma State’s Brad Underwood as the new coach. That gives current players and committed recruits a name they can ponder.
Although news of his hiring broke Saturday, Underwood will be formally introduced at noon Monday at a news conference at the State Farm Center.
Underwood met with the Illini team before practice Sunday and told them they should make the best out of the opportunity to keep winning in the National Invitation Tournament.
Illinois hosts Boise State at 8 p.m. Monday, two hours after Illinois State hosts Central Florida in Normal. Underwood will be introduced to the State Farm Center crowd at halftime.
If the two Illinois schools win, it will be Illinois vs. Illinois State on Wednesday night at Redbird Arena. And the winner of that game will advance to the NIT semifinals in Madison Square Garden.
First, though, Illinois has to get past a Boise State team that upset Utah 73-68 in an opening-round NIT game played last Tuesday.
To be clear, Underwood has been hired as Illinois’ new head coach. But Jamall Walker, named by Whitman to be interim coach after the firing of John Groce, will coach the Illini team throughout NIT play.
Walker has been analyzing Boise State’s victory over Utah and based on that game, Illinois’ No. 1 goal is clear: Stop Chandler Hutchinson.
Hutchinson is a 6-7 junior who scored 34 points against Utah. He’s Boise State’s leading scorer and rebounder and, Walker said, the heartbeat of the team.
“Hutchinson is terrific,” said Walker. “He’s really good. Nick Duncan (a 6-8 forward), I remember watching him in the NCAA Tournament two years ago. He can really, really shoot the ball.
“They have great spacing on offense. I love how they play four outside, one inside. They are setting ball screens and they play fast. It’s a fun way they play.”
Illinois will be without Michael Finke, who was wearing a boot on his left foot Sunday.
“They’ve decided to shut me down for the season,” said Finke, who also missed Illinois’ NIT opener against Valparaiso. “It’s not a stress fracture, but they said if I keep playing it could become one.”
Before Illinois’ 82-57 victory over Valparaiso, Walker said he asked the team to find motivation to play hard in the tournament, despite missing out on the NCAA Tournament and despite whatever pressure the team may have felt while trying to save Groce’s job.
Walker is taking the same approach this time, appealing to his seniors to lead the way.
“They’re excited about the opportunity to play and that’s what I keep focusing on,” Walker said. “It’s on them. It’s on the players. It’s on the seniors, on Mav (Morgan), on Tracy (Abrams), on Malcolm (Hill), on all of them to be prepared and bring the other guys along with them.
“I can’t do it myself. I’m not playing. My playing career ended in 1999. So we’re going to do the best we can to get them prepped strategically and hope they can bring their mindset and toughness to the game.”
Underwood has yet to sit down with Walker, leaving unresolved the next chapter in the Illini basketball drama.
Walker, who is considered a key component in holding together the highly rated Illini recruiting class, didn’t sound concerned about his own status Sunday after practice had concluded.
“No, we haven’t really talked to that extent,” said Walker, who first met Underwood nearly 30 years ago. “I’ve seen him briefly. The main thing I’ve focused on is, I want to give these players my best. I’ve asked them to eliminate distractions and I have to do the same. I have to walk the walk as well.
“We’re going to focus in on that at some point, but right now it’s about giving these guys my best.”
With his status in limbo, Walker is reportedly being pursued by Missouri, DePaul and St. Louis University, his alma mater. Walker’s recruiting ties in the St. Louis area are highly valued.
When Underwood is officially introduced Monday, Whitman may have more to say about Walker’s status and the commitment to keep him in place. Sources say Whitman has a clear understanding of Walker’s role and has encouraged Underwood to give him strong consideration.
Walker made it clear he and his wife have a strong connection to the Champaign-Urbana community.
“It’s mixed emotions,” he said. “It’s a bittersweet opportunity for my family. It’s a good thing but it’s also hard to figure out how this came about.
“I’m sure my wife would probably like to stay here. Who would want to move and pack up stuff? But it’s a family decision and we’ll discuss things at some point.
“That’s not up to me. If it was up to me, I think this place is special. My kids have been raised here. They’ve been born here. Me and my wife have only been married five years, so Champaign has been home for us, more than any other place. We’ll see where it goes. I can’t say what will happen.”