Its laidback leading scorer has long hair, wears tie-dyed shirts and is called Sunshine. Its point-power forward helps videotape a nonsensical shooting routine before every road game that teammates plan to release to the public at season's end. And its best on-ball defender will pause if you ask about the team's rap song. "We do have three different ones," says point guard Trey Pinkney. Welcome to Stephen F. Austin State University, home of one of the nation's hottest and most colorful college basketball teams. After waiting 27 years for a Division I head coaching job, first-year coach Brad Underwood has constructed a team that is loose and free-spirited off the court and stoic and almost emotionless on it. Almost every March a double-digit NCAA tournament seed – last year it was Florida Gulf Coast becoming the first 15 seed to reach the Sweet 16 – captivates the college basketball world with its play and personality. Few potential sleeper teams will have a better chance to do so this month than the Lumberjacks, a potentially dangerous No. 13 seed if they can win the Southland Conference tournament to claim the league's automatic berth. And their players know it. "The teams, they had better be aware that we are coming," says senior Desmond Haymon, the best team leader Underwood has ever coached. "We're coming. I don't want to sound cocky. I want to be confident. I don't think anyone can beat us when we play our basketball." The Lumberjacks (27-2) have not lost since Nov. 23. Five players average at least 9.9 points. The Lumberjacks rank second nationally, behind only VCU, in turnover percentage. And they have caused havoc – not with a full-court press – but with what Underwood calls an aggressive, "crawl-in-your-shirt" half-court defense that extends beyond the three-point line. Underwood spent seven years as a head coach at two junior colleges, experiences that he wouldn't trade for anything. He also worked on the staffs under Bob Huggins at Kansas State and Frank Martin at Kansas State and South Carolina. He learned how to be blunt yet caring. "He has a good feel for when to push those buttons," Lumberjacks assistant Mike Boynton Jr. says. "He is as good as I've been around in terms of having a feel for his team and knowing when to get on them, when to embrace them." And through the grind of a long season, Underwood understands the value in allowing players to be themselves, in fostering camaraderie by illuminating their personalities. And everything points to a larger goal this month. "To say, I thought we would be (27-2), no, I didn't," Underwood says. "But I tell our team this every day, 'You've got to dream big.' That's something I want them to do. It's something I have done my entire life." *** Nearly three decades ago, a dinner of fried rice with his newlywed Susan was one of Underwood's highlights of the week. Shortly after getting married, Underwood, a 1986 Kansas State graduate, and his wife moved from Kansas to Abilene, Texas, where he worked as a graduate assistant for the Hardin-Simmons University men's basketball team. They moved into a one-bedroom apartment so small that the microwave was in the living room. The rent: $290 a month. Underwood's monthly stipend: $300. He worried about being able to put enough gas in his high-mileage Buick Regal. The local mall, where Susan worked, had a Chinese restaurant, where they treated themselves to a luxury: fried rice. But only once a week. "It was literally all we could afford," Underwood says. "That fried rice was a pretty big deal. We were skimming the Sunday paper for coupons and everything else … When you are thankful to go on the road (for work) because you know gas is taken care of, food is taken care of, that was awesome." At his first full-time job, an assistant at Dodge City Community College in Kansas, he made $15,000. The next year he became the head coach and thought he fell into a money pit, earning $25,000. He'd be up at 3 a.m. compiling scouting reports for games played on back-to-back days. At the same time, the team's laundry would be whirring in the background. Susan was the academic coordinator helping with study tables. "Those were the days that make you," Underwood says. Underwood's career later took him to Western Illinois, where he spent a decade as an assistant. He made $30,000 when he arrived and almost $50,000 when he left. It was there, with a young family to care for, that he started questioning his career path and where it would lead. But it ultimately led to six seasons at Kansas State, to South Carolina, where he was associate head coach last season under Martin and now to this quaint Texas town located about three hours southeast of Dallas. "You remember the journey, which makes it worthwhile," Underwood says. "I never forget that. I wake up every day very, very thankful that I have one of 350 jobs … I guess I kind of came up the hard way." *** Before he interviewed at Stephen F. Austin, Underwood already appreciated the program's winning tradition. The Lumberjacks, who made their only NCAA tournament appearance in 2009, had won more than 20 games five of the last six years of the Danny Kaspar era. Underwood toured campus on foot one Saturday with athletic director Robert Hill during his interview and was wowed. There were no weeds in the flowerbeds. All the signs were painted. The ground was devoid of trash. "Saturday morning?" Underwood says. "You don't know what you're going to see on a college campus on a Saturday morning. I said, 'Wow, this place has a lot of pride.' It is a special place." Underwood viewed it as a sleeping giant. He inherited a team that went 27-5 but lost its three best players, including the league's player of the year, senior Taylor Smith. Only two starters returned, and they were role players last season. Haymon says Underwood doesn't have a lot of rules, but one is that players have to communicate with him. And even in late February, when the normal rigors of the regular season typically diminish some enthusiasm, players routinely visit the men's basketball office to talk with coaches. "These kids need to exude their personalities, and I encourage that," Underwood says. "I don't like being around duds. I like being around guys who like to have fun, like to enjoy the process. And yet understand when we step on the court, there is a difference." In one sequence against Northwestern State, leading scorer Jacob Parker threw up an alley-oop pass to Thomas Walkup, who dunked the ball. Afterward, they simply sprinted back down court. No chest bumping or histrionics. "We are not that team," Underwood says. Kyle Rogers, the school's assistant director of media relations, applauds the job Kaspar did at Stephen F. Austin. But he says last year's team "played under Danny Kaspar. These players play for Brad Underwood."
Is Stephen F. Austin this season's Florida Gulf Coast?
USA Today | Mar 6