Like a crutch, Illinois basketball fans like to lean on the fact that their program is the 15th winningest in the history of college basketball. Never mind that the present-day team was the 12th winningest in the conference two years ago, or that St. John’s, which hasn’t been nationally relevant for decades, is the ninth-winningest program in the history of the sport – damn it the Illini were once a top team and will be again soon.
Many Big Ten fans have a chip on their shoulder about national media coverage of the conference. Sad as it makes me to say this, I think Illinois fans understand full well that their teams haven’t deserved national coverage in the past decade. Since Dee Brown, who committed to Illinois in the summer of 2001, departed, the Illini have won two NCAA Tournament games. In neither of those years were they a threat to make the Final Four. For 10 years running, a top 15 program in the history of college basketball (debatably) did not sniff national relevance. To echo the words of Illinois AD Josh Whitman the day he fired John Groce, if the Illini were not careful with their next head coach hire, that number would almost certainly reach 20 years. Maybe even 30 years. With apologies to St. John’s, Illinois fans do not want their beloved to become the next St. John’s.
When Brad Underwood was hired, many in the fanbase were shocked to see the national media shower praise on the Illini. More importantly, they were impressed by Underwood’s track record of winning: entering the year Underwood held a 109-27 overall record. In three years at Stephen F. Austin, his team lost only one conference game and equaled the Illini’s NCAA Tournament win total from the last decade. Josh Whitman’s promise-turned-catchphrase-turned-hashtag, “We Will Win”, which risked being turned into a punchline, suddenly had substance.
The early returns on the Underwood Era are overwhelmingly positive. The team is winning, but more importantly fans can see and hear the progress being made. Every new coach gets a honeymoon period, but Underwood seems to have won over the fan base with his honest and genuine interviews and tough-but-fair demeanor. Hold-over players seem to be improving, especially Aaron Jordan and Leron Black. Michael Finke has been supremely efficient. Underwood is clearly making a project out of developing sophomore forward Kipper Nichols, harping on his preparation and defensive effort. Nichols has been the first man off the bench so far this year, but the Illini will need him to make a starter’s contributions against tougher opponents.
The roster, while it could use one more big man, sets up very well for a quick turnaround. Illinois loses only one contributor after this season in graduate transfer Mark Alstork. They continue to get solid contributions from multiple freshman, including the outstanding Mark Smith. Ayo Dosunmu, a homegrown top-30 recruit, is in the fold for next season. A tournament appearance will once again be expected in Champaign a year from now.
Now here comes the section where the sportswriter hedges bets and points out the uncertainties that remain around the shiny new coach. [Except when you’re writing about Northwestern. Then it’s a feel-good story no matter what and Chris Collins-son-of-Doug is a guru who loves his players and his players love him and wait what’s this about Johnnie Vassar??] My big question: how will the current roster, comprised largely of players Underwood did not recruit, respond to his coaching style in the coming months and years, especially when the team inevitably faces adversity? Illini fans watched and ridiculed as the personas of Bruce Weber and John Groce started to wear their teams thin. Underwood gives it to you straight, but might their be conflict in the near term, before he gets a roster full of “his guys?” So far, so great, but I’ll be keeping a close eye on the postgame pressers once the Illini start playing, and losing to, some real competition.
Not long ago, Illinois was the 11th winningest program in the history of college basketball. It’s now up to Brad Underwood not only to keep them from falling further than 15, but to bring the program back to relevance.