Cheer up, lad. It's the best of times at Northwestern. And Illini get their man, under-the-radar Underwood.

Somebody needs to find that kid.

Gould Headshot square

You know, the one in Northwestern gear who seemed to think the Wildcats had come to bodily harm rather than abuse by Gonzaga and by referees failing to see an obvious goal-tending call.

Yes, Northwestern lost in wrenching fashion Saturday, when a powerful comeback was stalled by the missed goal-tending call, and the insult-to-injury technical call on Chris Collins for trying to point out the obvious.

Would the Wildcats have won if the goal-tending call had been made? We’ll never know.

It sure would have been nice to find out. But somebody needs to find that kid and tell him this was great stuff by Collins and the Wildcats, who made their first-ever NCAA tournament appearance by proving they belonged.

They were tough, beating Vanderbilt and regrouping from a 22-point deficit to give Gonzaga a real scare. They were as entertaining as could be.

And they return a core of players that promises to give them another NCAA shot very quickly—like next year.

So relax, young man. No matter how devastated you were by the Gonzaga setback, you should know that this is the absolute best of times for Northwestern basketball.

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NEW ILLINI HOOPS COACH

Brad Underwood, who bolted from Oklahoma State after just one year, looks like a promising hire as Illinois' new coach.[membership level="0"] The rest of this article is available to subscribers only - to become a subscriber click here.[/membership] [membership]

Underwood did well in three years at Stephen F. Austin before that. He was 89-14 there, including a pair of opening wins in the NCAA tournament.

He took Oklahoma State (20-13, 9-9 Big 12) to a 10th seed in this year’s tournament, where it lost 92-91 to red-hot No. 7 Michigan on Friday. Jokes aside, there’s no shame in that. That’s especially true because Underwood runs a high-powered offense that averaged 85.5 points and ranked first in Kenpom.com’s offensive-efficiency ratings.

Underwood, 53, has been around the block, which is a good thing in the rugged Big Ten world. And he was an assistant at Western Illinois in 1992-2003, which means he knows the recruiting territory.

With his Sooner State link, he follows an Illini tradition that harkens back to Oklahoma natives Bill Self and Lou Henson.

Some people are already down on Underwood’s integrity because he left Stillwater after only year. Oklahoma State alum Self said, ``It shocks me. . . . very rarely do you see [a coach leave] after just one year.’’

This doesn’t bother me all that much, because I’m cynical enough to know that coaches jump around all the time. I never begrudged Self, who might be my all-time favorite coach that I covered up-close, for leaving Illinois to go to Kansas. Hot coaches use their leverage; cold coaches don't last.

As for this business about breaking promises to his players, if he had left after three years, that would have been three recruiting classes he was abandoning, instead of one.

And while the departures of coaches always are initially wrenching for players and fans, they are not always bad things.

I’ve always tended to think that Self’s departure from Illinois toughened up his `abandoned' players, led by Deron Williams and Dee Brown.

They initially had a rough break-in period with Bruce Weber. But they also developed thicker skins that enabled them to enjoy a magical ride to the 2005 national championship game. I don’t know if that team would have done as well had Self stayed.

Underwood reportedly will be paid about $3 million at Illinois, a big bump from the $1 million he received at Oklahoma State this season. Underwood reportedly also was not getting along with his boss, Cowboys AD Mike Holder.

If true, those two reasons alone are enough to explain why Underwood would jump at the Illinois job.

He obviously was under the radar. He was never mentioned among the obvious candidates, but that doesn’t mean much, other than that Illini athletic director Josh Whitman learned well from his mentor, Ron Guenther, who was unblinkingly determined to be stealth-like in his hiring.

My sources tell me Whitman was not snubbed by Cuonzo Martin, who moved from Cal to Missouri. I was partial to younger up-and-coming coaches, but there's nothing wrong with a more veteran guy, if he gets the job done.

I’m feeling kind of neutral about Underwood at this point. I don’t know enough about him to vote yea or nay.

None of that matters now. What matters is whether Underwood can revive an Illinois program that has missed the NCAA tournament four straight years for the first time in more than 40 years.

If Underwood can win early and often, and there are indications that he will have the talent to do that, he’ll be a breath of fresh air in Champaign.

After seeing their last two coaches fired for not winning enough, and seeing the two coaches before them bolt for greener pastures, Illinois craves stability and success.

That’s especially true with That Team Up North capturing the hearts of Chicago.[/membership]

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