The math seems simple enough.
“To go 18–0 in conference, I really haven’t fully grasped that yet,” says Brad Underwood, the first-year head coach at Stephen F. Austin University in Nacogdoches, Texas. “We’ve done it along with two other teams. Florida went 18–0, and they’re ranked number one. Wichita State went 18–0, and they’re ranked number two. We did it, and we’re.…”
The latest college basketball polls were released on Monday and, for the 19th consecutive week, the tiny Division I school from east Texas that finished 29–2 heading into its conference tournament this weekend failed to crack the Top 25. The Lumberjacks have won 26 games in a row—their last loss was the Saturday before Thanksgiving. They have played more than half their games (16) away from their gym and went 14–2 in those contests. Only Wichita State, which at 34–0 is undefeated, equaled that road record. And it finished 18–0 in the regular season in the Southland Conference in this, Underwood’s virgin season as a Division I head coach.
“They’re undefeated [in conference],” says Underwood, who at 50 is a seasoned first-year Division I head coach, of his players. “They’re undefeated. They’re undefeated. I don’t care whom you play, that’s hard to do in high school, in junior high, even in sixth grade.”
No one is suggesting that SFA, as the school is known, is a top 10 powerhouse, although it is worth noting that the Lumberjacks played just as many ranked opponents—zero—as has No. 2 Wichita State this season. But why, with a school that is on the cusp of 30 victories and, with neither the Associated Press and USA Today/Coaches’ polls playing an actual role in which teams are selected for NCAA men’s basketball tournament, do voters in both polls opt to disregard them?
“No offense to present company,” says Underwood diplomatically, “but most reporters don’t have any idea how difficult it is to win 26 games in a row. You could play really well and still lose. We’ve won 12 road games in a row on the road, and we’re undefeated at home. Don’t minimize that.”
Underwood, who played two seasons at Kansas State in the mid-1980s, may have a point, but here is a more salient one: While the Lumberjacks are unranked in either poll, they received more than three times as many votes (56) in the AP poll, whose voters are sports writers, than they did in the USA Today poll (17), whose voters are Underwood’s peers. So perhaps cronyism is more pernicious and expansive than ignorance?
Regardless, history will not forget Underwood’s debut season in Nacogdoches, nor should anyone who has ever earned their station in life. Before this year his only two head coaching jobs were at the junior college level, guiding Dodge City (Kansas) Community College to a 62–60 record from 1988 to 1993 and Daytona Beach Community College to a 70–24 record between 2003 and 2006. He spent the seven seasons prior to accepting the job at SFA as an assistant coach on Frank Martin’s staff at Kansas State and then South Carolina.
“Did I always want to be a head coach at the Division I level? Absolutely,” says Underwood, who has been married for 27 years. “But I understand that I am blessed to have one of 351 of these jobs.
“I tell every graduate assistant coach I meet: Go the juco [coaching] route because you have to do it all yourself,” says Underwood, who interviewed for two Division I coaching jobs before SFA hired him last spring. “You’re the coach, you’re the financial aid guy, you’re the academic counselor, you’re even the laundry service. I wouldn’t trade a day of it.”
The Lumberjacks were not exactly blindly swinging at timber before Underwood’s arrival. His predecessor, Danny Kaspar, led them to five 20-win seasons in his final six years, including a 26–3 record last season. Kaspar left to coach at Texas State. Underwood inherited a roster that was steeped in success but had only two returning starters. “When I got here I needed them to understand two things,” says Underwood. “Number one, we were going to play faster, and that was received with open arms. The other thing, I needed them to be themselves.”
Four Lumberjack players average between 12 and 15 points per game. The team’s leading scorer in conference play, Desmond Haymon (14.2 ppg) was not named first- or second- but rather third-team all-conference recently. Again, this on a team that went 18–0 in its conference. “We’re a position-less team, and we don’t rely on one guy,” says Underwood. “It’s old-school.”
The most formidable opponent SFA has met this season was Texas (21–8), which had been ranked most of this season until losing four of its last six. When the two met last November in Austin, in Underwood’s third game at the helm, the score was deadlocked at 60–60 with 2:37 to play before the Longhorns pulled away for a 72–62 victory. “I’m the kind of coach who will foul at the end to give my team a chance, so that 10-point margin is a little deceiving,” says Underwood. “I was proud that we stuck right with them.”
Last year, despite its 26–3 record, SFA failed to win the Southland Conference tournament, which guarantees an automatic bid in the NCAA tournament. The Lumberjacks were not given an at-large berth to the 68-team field. When I asked CBS Sports.com’s NCAA tournament guru, Jerry Palm, how many games SFA would need to win this weekend in the Southland Conference tournament in order to lock down a berth in this year’s tournament, he put it bluntly: “All of ’em.”
Or, both of them, since the Lumberjacks earned a double-bye as the No. 1 seed. Should SFA cut down the nets in Katy, Texas, Underwood’s record as a first-year Division I head coach would be 31–2 (.939). Only two coaches in Division I history won more games in their inaugural season than that: Bill Guthridge at North Carolina, in the first year A.D., “After Dean [Smith]”, 1997–1998; and Bill Hodges at Indiana State, who had a senior named Larry Bird, in 1978–1979. Only Hodges, whose Sycamores finished 33–1 after losing to Michigan State in the national championship game, finished with a higher win percentage.
Would such a freshman year, at the age of 50, provide vindication for Underwood?
“It’s never that complicated for me,” he says. “I had a great journey to get here. No matter where I’ve been, I just don’t like the season to be over.”
It shouldn’t be any time soon. Underwood is two wins away from Cinderella swinging a mighty axe during March Madness.