Underwoods ignore the criticism, appreciate the experience
February 18, 2019
The State Farm Center was buzzing.
Illinois was down three to Rutgers with 2:03 to go in the first half, one game removed from the program’s shocking win over No. 9 Michigan State.
Head coach Brad Underwood pulled out stud freshman Ayo Dosunmu, who had two fouls in 16 minutes to go along with nine points, and inserted redshirt-junior Tyler Underwood, his son.
Boos careened across the court toward the bench.
Neither Underwood batted an eye nor shifted a muscle in reaction. Tyler simply played out two uneventful minutes before the half, not registering a single stat, but he successfully closed out on one three-point attempt.
“It’s really easy to say, ‘Well, he plays because he’s the coach’s kid,’” Brad said.
The Illini ended up defeating the Scarlet Knights 99-94 in overtime, and Tyler never stepped back on the court.
That game wasn’t the first time there were grumbles from the fanbase this season about the younger Underwood. After all, he has logged 57 minutes (4.8 per game in 12 games) total, even though he isn’t on a scholarship.
It likely hasn’t helped that 24 of those minutes on the court have come with losses to Georgetown (two minutes), Iowa State (five), at Nebraska (four), Missouri (five), at Northwestern (six) and at Iowa (two).
The thing is, the Underwoods don’t care how it looks when a coach’s walk-on son is playing meaningful minutes on a Big Ten team.
“Everybody in the program knows and all the players on our team know, what (Tyler) does every day in practice has value to help us win,” Brad said. “I’m not putting him out there for any other reason other than to help us win. When he’s on the court, his plus-minus speaks for itself. His plus-minus is No. 1 on our team.”
To them, it’s natural; just as natural as blocking out the hate, which many in the program have acknowledged throughout a season plagued by frustrating losses to tough competition.
“They’re not here every day in practice,” Tyler said. “It’s like I mentioned earlier; as a whole group, we try to block out the outside noise. We just try to stay positive with each other. I feel like I’ve earned the trust of my teammates and my coaches.”
Tyler redshirted last year after following his dad to Illinois from Oklahoma State, and before that, from Stephen F. Austin.
Picking up and moving frequently during his adolescent life and basketball career, Tyler is something of a journeyman.
His road to meaningful minutes this season is long, winding and not without adversity, regardless of how fans perceive whether he’s earned the playing time under his father’s watch.
Tyler played high school ball in three different states, moving from Manhattan, Kansas, to South Carolina when his dad took the associate head coach position in 2013.
His junior and senior seasons, Tyler played at Nacogdoches High School. There, the 6-foot-2-inch guard averaged 21 points, setting the school record for career three-pointers made.
Throughout his high school career, Tyler benefitted from being around his dad’s basketball programs, though Brad kept more of a hands-off approach to Tyler’s development.
“We share a passion for (basketball),” Tyler said. “Growing up, I was always in the gym with (my dad’s teams). After school that was the place I wanted to go, the gym. I’ve just kind of always been a gym rat that way.”
Brad leveled the gym rat description at his son, too.
“The kid doesn’t know anything but a gym since he was old enough to remember,” Brad said. “It’s a passion with him that’s helped him succeed.”
While his dad was an assistant coach at Kansas State, Tyler would hang around the gym, locker room and team, soaking it all in, looking for ways to get better while forming relationships with some of the players.
He recalls getting close with Michael Beasley, who was selected No. 2 overall in the NBA Draft by the Miami Heat after his freshman year.
“(Beasley) was my guy. He’s a big old kid,” Tyler said. “I remember being in the locker room with him and guys like Jacob Pullen and just kicking (it), watching Spongebob (Squarepants), watching them play video games.”
With that type of access, he did more than sit around and spectate.
He learned the value of hard work and of being a relentless competitor. He developed a basketball mind.
“You watch guys like Beasley who spend every day in the gym, guys like (Kansas State all-time leading scorer) Jacob Pullen,” Tyler said. “And it doesn’t even have to be guys like that. Guys like Will Sprawling, he was a (guard) at Kansas State I looked up to. He taught me a lot about the effort plays in basketball, the high IQ plays. The thing I learned most growing up is it’s not about scoring points and all that, it’s about winning. That’s what those guys taught me. They were all the most competitive guys in the gym.”
It’s aspects like those, bits of knowledge gleaned from the front lines of high-major basketball, that have set Tyler Underwood on his path.
But with Brad almost constantly tied up with his own coaching duties, he rarely had time to see his budding son play.
“When you’re earning your stripes in this business, you go see everybody else’s kids play and not your own,” Brad said. “That’s maybe regretful on my end, to a certain extent.”
Tyler understood the pressing duties his dad had to fulfill though, and besides, he always had his mom there for his games.
His mother, Susan, who strictly limits basketball talk at family meals and who he hails as “the boss,” helped fuel his desire to succeed in the sport and life.
“My mom is the best,” Tyler said. “She did a great job when we were growing up, just taking care of all of us. She was at all of my games. She’s the real MVP of this whole thing, to be honest. She’s just as competitive as me and my dad. I love her to death.”
He said his relationship with his father isn’t as complicated as one might expect from the son of a Power Five coach — a pure-bred yeller, at that.
Brad doesn’t sugar-coat and he doesn’t spare anyone from what he believes is the truth, according to his son.
“He’s a straight shooter,” Tyler said. “He’s not going to lie to you; he tells the truth. So you always know where you stand with him. He’s a guy you don’t want to disappoint.”
And yet, it seems impossible not to disappoint a figure whose job includes so much disappointment, especially while attempting to rebuild a once-elite Illinois basketball program that has fallen on hard times.
Coaches are rarely easy to please, much less Division I coaches, and even less so, one that is also a player’s father.
But the Underwoods are well aware of that — they maintain a degree of separation as a father-son, coach-player duo.
“It’s great to walk out on the court and see your son,” Brad said. “(But) when we step across the line, he knows he’s a player. And we step back across it, I’m Dad again. We talk a lot of ball. That’s fun; I enjoy that probably more than he ever knows. It’s pretty special.”
The older Underwood rarely hesitates to heap praise on his players’ on-court abilities and off-court personalities.
He didn’t hold back any thoughts about Tyler, either.
“Tyler’s a really good person to have around as a player,” Brad said. “He’s a much better son, and a good kid.”
Brad noted that in his frequent absence, his son has developed strong relationships with his mother and his sisters, Katie and Ashley.
“He’s been very protective of his mom and his sisters. He checks in every day with his mom,” Brad said. “He’s got a unique bond, not just with me because I’m a coach and had that responsibility as well, but he’s got a unique bond with his mom and his sisters because of me being gone a lot. He’s got a very mature way about him that allows him to be compassionate and to care. That’s very evident when you’re around him.”
After graduating high school, Tyler had a pivotal decision to make.
Wofford, one the Southern Conference’s perennial contenders, was recruiting him, but he also had the opportunity to walk on to his dad’s team at Stephen F. Austin.
Tyler eventually chose to stay in Nacogdoches and grind it out with his father.
But with about two games left in the regular season at Nacogdoches High School, Tyler tore his ACL and was forced out for months.
He had to redshirt, but he said that was the year when he developed the most as a basketball player, despite it also being the most tiring, frustrating year as a player.
It’s also the year where Tyler thinks he learned what has made him able to make on-court contributions at Illinois.
“I learned the rigors of college basketball, how it takes a toll on your body; it’s emotionally exhausting,” Tyler said. “I’d always been a guy that scored pretty easily. I saw in college that was going to be different. You’ve got to find your role on the team and you’ve got to be an all-star in my role.”
After his freshman year, Brad moved to Oklahoma State — and Tyler followed suit, walking on to his dad’s team for the second time.
After Brad put together a first-year NCAA Tournament run, he was offered the Illinois job and seized it.
The rest is history.
Tyler elected to take his talents to a Big Ten program, knowing playing time would be tough to come by and that virtually every other player on the court would pose a greater skill set.
In his time at Illinois, it’s difficult to truly measure the contributions of the walk-on guard.
But even as some Illinois fans — perhaps as a product of years of disappointment — grumble whenever Tyler enters a game, it’s difficult to deny that he has carved out a relevant role at Illinois.
He couldn’t play at all last year (due to the transfer), but he had something else to offer: knowledge of his father’s system, particularly the aggressive, nonstop pressure defense employed by Underwood teams.
It’s something each Underwood said was influential in establishing the “culture” Brad has so often spoke about developing at Illinois.
“I don’t think there’s any doubt,” Brad said. “I think that he’s a sounding board for a lot of our guys. As he’s gotten older, he’s been able to establish some leadership in terms of being able to aggressively talk to guys and not feel like, ‘Well I’m the coach’s kid.’ He feels a part of this team.”
When a certain guard named Trent Frazier arrived in town from Wellington, Florida, he and Tyler hit it off.
Frazier brought unrelenting confidence to the court, but Tyler helped him adjust to his dad’s system, especially on defense.
Now one of the Illini’s most accomplished players, playing committed defense and at the high rate Brad demands offensively were not things Frazier had experienced to date.
“I know the culture I think as good as anyone; (I know) what my dad wants,” Tyler said. “I try to take some of the young guys under my wing. Last year, I tried to help Trent as much as I could. That’s one of my best friends. This year I’ve tried to help all of those freshmen — (Tevian Jones), Alan (Griffin), Ayo (Dosunmu). You come from high school and college basketball is so different, it’s kind of a culture shock at first. The weights, the training, the early morning practice, I just try to help them as much as I can. It’s been good to see them succeed.”
Despite the team’s 9-15 record, Illinois has already eclipsed its conference win total (four) from the first year with the Underwoods, winning four of its last five games to move to (5-8) in the Big Ten.
Brad has been outspoken about the development he’s seen from his guys, and Tyler concurs. There has been a lot of improvement in nearly every game this season.
“Last year was about fighting for a culture that we wanted to build,” Tyler said. “This year, we have so many new guys, it was kind of about that in the beginning. But all these new guys have done a great job of being receptive to the message and of the culture. It’s been entrenched into us. We’re very young, so that’s hard. We had a very, very tough schedule early on, which is unfortunate for us just because we had so much youth.”
Born 130 miles east of Champaign, in Macomb, Illinois, Tyler’s road to becoming an Illini has been far from simple.
But it’s been quite fitting.
He grew up in the golden era, just old enough to watch Bruce Weber’s 2005 team fall short of a national title, in the days when a missed NCAA Tournament was a disgrace in Champaign.
His first-ever basketball jersey was Brian Cook’s, an Illini star who helped lead Bill Self’s 2001 squad to a No. 1 seed in the Big Dance and went on to become a first-round NBA Draft pick (selected No. 24 by the Lakers).
As Tyler plays out the remainder of his junior year of eligibility and goes into his senior season in November, it’s unlikely Illinois fans will remember the contributions he’s made to the program or the sacrifices he’s endured moving from place to place throughout his career.
More likely than not, he’ll be remembered simply as Brad Underwood’s son.
Some might recall him playing solid defense at times, when his number was called, or as a guy who pushed talents like freshman Ayo Dosunmu and sophomore Trent Frazier each day in practice.
But the coach’s kid has drawn so much from his time in the sport, his father’s tutelage and the lessons the game has taught him through adversity and experience.
“(Basketball) has taught me a lot about hard work and dedication,” Tyler said.
Then, he broke into a coach’s anecdote — albeit one sprung from one of his old man’s mentors.
“(West Virginia head coach) Bob Huggins always talks about how basketball is kind of like a girlfriend,” Tyler said. “You’ve got to spend time with it, you’ve got to work on your game, or it’s going to leave you. I think you can kind of apply that to life. You’ve got to be passionate about things, you’ve got to work hard at (them). Basketball has taught me a lot about dedication, kind of the grind of life and getting better.”
Editor’s note: Manhattan, Kansas was incorrectly referred to as New York, Kansas. The article has been updated to reflect the correct location. The Daily Illini regrets the error.