LAHAINA, Hawaii – Stephen Gentry’s frequent chats and text exchanges with Illinois coach Brad Underwood should resume later this week.
They’ve been put on hold temporarily with third-ranked Gonzaga facing Illinois in a Maui Invitational opener Monday at 8:30 p.m. Pacific.
It’ll mark the end of Gentry’s five-day stretch connecting with two former bosses who were influential in the career of Gonzaga’s director of basketball operations. Last Thursday, the Zags handled Texas A&M, which is coached by Billy Kennedy.
Gentry was elevated from video coordinator to director of operations when Kennedy was hired at Texas A&M after Mark Turgeon left for Maryland. Gentry stayed two seasons with the Aggies before leaving for … an assistant coaching position on Underwood’s staff at Stephen F. Austin.
“We still talk about every day, just talking X’s and O’s, what about this or that,” Gentry said, “but all of sudden we drew each other in Maui and I joked with Brad and his son Tyler (an Illini walk-on) that you don’t even text me anymore. There’s a lot of love and respect amongst us. Brad gave me my first opportunity as an assistant.”
SFA went to three NCAA Tournaments in Underwood’s three years and won 89 games, tied for the most by a coaching staff in its first three seasons. The Lumberjacks stunned third-seeded West Virginia in Spokane in the first round of the 2016 NCAA Tournament.
When Underwood was hired at Oklahoma State, Gentry joined him as director of player development. It was a one-year stint for both as Illinois came calling after the Cowboys lost in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. That required another move for Gentry, but this one turned out to be even shorter than the stint at OSU.
“I initially made the move there and was all set to buy a house,” the former Zag walk-on guard said, “and (Zags assistant) Tommy Lloyd calls. I still remember walking into Brad’s office and I said I’d been offered a job at Gonzaga. I’d turned it down a few years earlier when they hired John Jakus. I couldn’t turn it down again.”
Underwood completely understood Gentry’s attachment to Gonzaga.
“I have tremendous appreciation for his intelligence, work ethic and he’s a very innovative thinker,” Underwood said. “More importantly, we’ll always have a special relationship with Stephen, his wife, Leah, and their daughter, Svea.”
Gentry, who helped introduce analytics to Underwood’s program, said his former boss is intense and an “incredible motivator” who brings out the best in players. Underwood invited his staff to present ideas and he often implemented those into practices or games.
Underwood’s teams are distinctive at both ends of the court and he’s implementing his system in his second season at Illinois. On offense, they run what Gentry termed a “pinch post offense.”
“You have to defend the cutting off the high post,” Gentry said. “Being on the other side of it, I can see why it’s such a tough scout when we were at SFA and Oklahoma State.”
The guard-dependent Illini apply unrelenting defensive pressure, challenging every dribble and passing lane.
“It’s literally West Virginia in the halfcourt,” GU coach Mark Few said. “It’s going to be in your face, you’re not going to be able to run sets. All the habits we’ve been teaching them, you can throw them out the window and you just have to play, be strong with the ball, go north-south, and show your fouls.”
Gentry said the biggest thing he took from Kennedy was finding a way to juggle basketball with life away from the court.
“I don’t think I could have worked for a better human,” Gentry said. “As a young coach, I thought of coaches as intense and go, go, go. He showed me that you can have balance, you can still go to church on Sunday even if you have to watch film, and it can’t always be about basketball.”
Gentry expressed his gratitude to Kennedy and Underwood, but his priority Monday is securing another win over one of his mentors.