Illini coach Underwood just getting started on rebuild
Illinois‘ recent seasons belie a program with a rich history that includes ranking in the top 15 in all-time wins and making 30 NCAA Tournament appearances and five Final Fours.
Remember the Flyin’ Illini? It’s been 30 years since Kenny Battle and Kendall Gill dazzled the nation with their above-the-rim show. It’s been 13 years since the team led by Luther Head, Dee Brown and Deron Williams started 29-0 and lost in the NCAA championship game to finish 37-2.
The faithful cling to those memories as they keep showing up at the State Farm Center hoping to see the kind of winners Lou Henson, Bill Self and Bruce Weber put on the floor.
Brad Underwood took over for John Groce and, now in his second season, is just beginning his attempt at a rebuild. The chemistry wasn’t right his first year. Seven players from that 14-18 team who would have had eligibility this season are gone. Underwood brought in eight newcomers and returned only four scholarship players.
The Illini are 2-6 heading into their game against No. 19 Ohio State at the United Center in Chicago on Wednesday night. Their only wins are against Evansville and Mississippi Valley State, and they’re coming off a 15-point loss at Nebraska in their Big Ten opener on Sunday.
There have been signs of progress against a schedule that, according to the NCAA, was fifth-toughest in the nation entering this week.
Trent Frazier missed a long 3-pointer that would have given Illinois the lead with 16 seconds left in an 84-78 loss to Gonzaga, ranked No. 3 and now No. 1, in the Maui Invitational on Nov. 19. Eight days later, Frazier’s 3-pointer at the buzzer rimmed out in a 76-74 loss at Notre Dame. Illinois also has been competitive against Georgetown and Xavier.
“We’re close. We’re a lot of little things away,” Underwood said. “I really like this team. I think this team has tremendous personality, it has tremendous work ethic. I think it’s helping us establish a culture that is what we want to be about.”
Veteran leadership comes from Frazier, the sophomore guard who leads the team with 14.8 points per game; senior guard Aaron Jordan, who’s shooting 49 percent on 3-pointers; and junior-college All-America guard Andres Feliz.
Key players from Underwood’s top-20 recruiting class are Ayo Dosunmu, who became the first player from the state of Illinois since 2015 to make the U.S. under-18 national team; 6-foot-9, 235-pound Giorgi Bezhanishvili from the nation of Georgia; and New York Catholic League city championship MVP Alan Griffin.
Dosunmu, a five-star recruit who’s a proven scorer and tough defender, has embraced his role as a foundation piece. He represents the best of Chicago, which year-in and year-out produces top basketball talent for the nation but only sporadically for the state’s flagship university in recent decades.
Underwood said he wants to draw players from Chicago, but he said the city and the state are in a down cycle in talent and that some of the best players have gone to prep schools and on to other colleges.
“There are some young kids who are there who, no doubt, it’s important (to sign them),” Underwood said. “Yet I understand we’re not going to get them all and I understand some don’t fit what we’re doing. It’s about the right fit whether they’re from Chicago or Miami or the Dominican Republic. If they’re from the great state of Illinois, it will be something exciting for all.”
Underwood’s first task is to make Illinois a place the best players want to be after missing the NCAA Tournament for five straight years. That means winning.
The Illini are scoring 77 points per game, the same number they’re giving up. They’re shooting 40.4 percent on 3-pointers but just 45 percent overall. They turn over the ball too much and don’t rebound enough.
The players are still learning the aggressive defensive system. According to kenpom.com, opponents are scoring a whopping 25 percent of their points on free throws, the result of Illinois ranking 16th nationally in most fouls per game (22.3).
Underwood said he wants to build an identity of toughness, togetherness and accountability. He knows his system works. At Stephen F. Austin, he went to three straight NCAA Tournaments and had a three-year record of 89-14. In his only year at Oklahoma State, the Cowboys won 20 games and made the NCAAs.
Underwood signed a six-year contract with Illinois paying him a total of $18 million, plus incentives, and he doesn’t promise a quick turnaround. He pointed out Mike Krzyzewski took until his fourth year to get Duke to the NCAA Tournament and John Beilein had losing records two of his first three years at Michigan.
“When we go to recruit or we go to an event, I want everybody to know what the ‘Illini Way’ is the way they know it’s the ‘Duke Way’ or the ‘Carolina Way,’ whatever it is,” Underwood said. “That’s what this program is capable of. We have an incredible fan base, incredible pride.
“It’s important to our people and yet, for a little bit now, we’ve been down. It’s timing. It gets back. You have to do it the right way and you can’t rush it.”