Updated: Mar 1, 2022
In 2018, Brad Underwood was hired by the university to head up its men's basketball team taking over for fired Head Coach John Groce. Underwood's first couple of years were not particularly good ones. They combined 26-39 (11-27 in conference play). But with solid recruiting and a determined motivational attitude three years later has, Illinois basketball is back in the mix of not only a conference title but a part of the National conversation. 4-star recruits that 7 or 8 years ago were going elsewhere are putting Illinois or their list of schools to visit.
Lou Henson via SBNation Bill Self via AP file photo Bruce Webber via ElsaGetty images
When Underwood was hired, he was taking over a program that was at best spinning its wheels as they had not made the NCAA tourney since 2014. The last Big Ten regular-season championship was in 2005 the last Big Ten Tournament Championship was that same year under Coach Bruce Webber.
Illinois enjoyed a long run in the NCAA Championships dating back to the 1980-81 season when they broke an 18-year drought under then-coach Lou Henson(1975-1996). In 33 seasons from the 1980-81 season to 2012-13 season, Illinois made the NCAA tournament 24 times, including two eight-year consecutive streaks. 1982-1990(Lou Henson) and 1999-2007 Bill Self(2000-2003) and Bruce Webber(2003-2012). Then four straight years of not making the NCAA tournament under John Groce, fans lost faith in the team.
Athletic Director Josh Whitman gave John Groce(2012-2017) a 1-year contract extension in 2014, extending him through the 2018 season. He was forced to fire him before making it to his extension.
After the firing of John Groce, the question was who to lead the team. Who could bring the program back to relevance not just in the Big Ten but also nationally?
In his first year, Brad Underwood led the Oklahoma State Cowboys to a 20 win season, going 20-13(9-9 in conference). The year prior, under Travis Ford, they went 12-20 (3-15 in conference). He was head coach at Stephen F. Austin for three years before that, compiling an 89-14 record winning both the regular-season conference championship and conference tournament championship, all three years.
* ^abcde In the Spring of 2019, The Stephen F. Austin athletics department discovered that the process by which student-athletes were being certified as academically eligible was not correctly accounting for all NCAA requirements from 2013 thru 2019. This error resulted in 82 student-athletes competing while ineligible for SFA in the sports of football, men's basketball, baseball, volleyball, softball, women's golf, men's and women's track & field, and men's cross country. As a result, Stephen F. Austin vacated 117 men's basketball victories from 2014 thru 2019, including all 29 wins during the 2014-2015 basketball season and all 28 wins during the 2015-2016 basketball season.
Whitman took a gamble, and the hiring was met with a lukewarm response. I mean, Whitman made the splash hire of Lovie Smith for football, and he grabs an unknown to lead the basketball team.
After going 26-39 at Illinois the first two years, Fans were getting just a bit restless. Then things started to turn, and Underwood's next two years were 45-17. The turnaround came in large part to bringing in guys like Georgi Bezhanishvili, Kofi Cockburn, Andre Curbelo, Jacob Grandison, Coleman Hawkins, and some kid named Ayo Dosunmu. Underwood has shown he can recruit quality players. Not only are they quality players, but they are also quality young men.
Now he has had his misses, to be sure, two of the most notable. Mark Smith, who played one year, then left for Missouri, Adam Miller, who started all 31 games as a Freshman in 2020-21, then transferred to LSU.
Since underwood arrived at Illinois, their recruiting classes have been ranked
2018 - 5th in the Big Ten - 25th nationally
2019 - 10th in the Big Ten - 69th nationally
2020 - 3rd in the Big Ten - 16th nationally
2021 - 4th in the Big Ten - 24th nationally
2022 - 4th in the Big Ten - 19th nationally
This year Underwood brought in a trio of talented Freshmen in Luke Goode, 6'5" SG from Indiana, a four-star player, ranked 111th nationally, and the top player in Indiana, Bradin Podziemski, 6'5" SG named Mr basketball of Wisconsin for 2021. and 4-star recruit RJ Melendez, a 6'7" wing, was a late-rising star in the 2021 class. All have played significant roles at times. Underwood did not rest on his laurels. For the 2022-23 season, he has acquired the services of Sincre Harris, 6'3" combo guard, the #3 player in Ohio, Jayden Epps, 6'2" Combo guard, the top player in North Carolina and number 46 nationally, and Ty Rodgers 6'6" forward, the number 58th player nationally, the number 15 small forward and the #1 player in Illinois.
And from the names connected to Illinois in 2023, Underwood's penchant for top athletic talent does not appear to be slowing down. Illinois is connected to several names, including Kylan Boswell, JJ Taylor, Matas Buzelis, Jeremy Fears, and Davis Loury, so Underwood is not shy about going after top talent. It's not just top high school talent that Underwood looks for. Last season, he went to the transfer portal to secure Omar Payne, a 6-9 240 pounder from the University of Florida, and Kofi Cockburn's option if he didn't come back. While Payne is NO King Kofi. he has provided some good minutes. The other transfer that has worked out much better is 6-2 shooting guard Alfonzo Plummer. Plummer has been a sharpshooting dynamo. Underwood again has not stopped looking at the transfer portal, grabbing up Dain Dainja, a more Kofi-sized big man 6-9 270 pounds.
It is not just his ability to recruit or pick the right transfers that make Underwood stand out. He has an energy and passion for the game and his players. It allows him to get the most out of his players. This season is an example of that. After all the off-season issues with players entering then leaving the draft players transferring out, replacing all of his assistant coaches the starting, the season with his star Big Man Kofi Cockburn suspended for three games injuries to Andre Curbelo, Trent Frazier, and Austin Hutcherson. (Hutcherson is out for the year with a sports hernia.) Curbelo has missed 14 games, primarily due to a concussion issue. Trent Frazier has been nursing a sore shoulder most of the year. Yet he has Illinois in the thick of the Big Ten race. In March, Illinois is also considered one of the top 16 seeds for the NCAA Tournament. They are also considered one of the favorites to win the Big Ten Tournament.
Underwood stresses defense as rebounding as the base of a top program, and Illinois excels at both aspects.
First in the Big ten in Rebounds per game 39.33 RPG
Second in the Big Ten in Defensive Rebound per game 27.4 RPG
Second in Offensive Rebounds per game 11.93 Second in the Big Ten in Total Rebounds 1062 total rebounds
Second in the Big Ten in Rebound margin of 6
Fifth in the Big Ten in Scoring Defense 67.4 PPG.
Add to that the offensive capabilities.
Third in the Big Ten in scoring offense 76.3PPG
Fifth in the Big Ten in scoring FG% 45.62
Third in the Big Ten in scoring 3PFG% 36.3
Illinois may not be a dynasty(yet), but Coach Underwood has inserted a level of consistency in terms of gritty, tough play, and high-level recruits coming in. This has changed the culture in Champaign. You see more and more people wearing Illinois basketball merchandise. The State Farm Center is alive and raucous on game day. It reminds me of the 80s under Lou Henson when the excitement level for each game was high, and sellout crowds were commonplace. Here is one fact Lou Henson started his college career at Hardin Simmons University. He left in 1966. Twenty years later, a young Brad Underwood was a Graduate Assistant at Hardin Simmons University(1986). Somehow I found this fitting that the coach heading up this resurgence of Illinois basketball has similar roots to the last coach who led such a resurgence.
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