Underwood turns Illinois basketball program around through team-building, culture, belief


By Brandon Simberg, Staff Writer

When Brad Underwood took over at Illinois in 2017, he knew it wasn’t going to be easy.

Sure, Illinois was a program with some history and in a position to land recruits from one of the best basketball cities in the world. But, the coaches after Bill Self had failed to do that.

Underwood was inheriting an Illini team that went 20-15 the previous season, but they missed the tourney for the third straight year. Gone was Illinois’ third all-time leading scorer, Malcolm Hill, and starting shooting guard Jalen Coleman-Lands. Underwood’s first roster included five freshmen, three of whom were expected to contribute.

Forecasts were not bright for Underwood’s first season, and in his first game as an Illinois coach, they lost an exhibition game to Eastern Illinois. The team finished the season 14-18, but to this day Underwood remembers how the season started.

“You think I’ve forgotten the Eastern Illinois exhibition game?” Underwood said. “To sit there and be standing on a ladder in the best league, Big Ten champions in the best league in the history of college basketball. Man, you take all of that in.”

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How Underwood turned this around is an interesting thought exercise in team-building. It started with Ayo Dosunmu, who in lots of ways is the perfect person to reinvigorate a program. Dosunmu was ranked 32nd in 247Sports recruit rankings but not seen as a guaranteed pro. Of the 31 players ranked ahead of him, only three are still in college as juniors. None of those players are still at their original schools.

Underwood also struck gold with Kofi Cockburn. Cockburn was ranked No. 46 and was expected to be good, but with the exception of Gonzaga’s Drew Timme, no sophomore in the country has produced more than Cockburn.

It’s more than recruiting. Underwood has brought this mantra to Illinois — everyday guys — and it looks like in year four, this team has a roster full of athletes who have bought into that mindset. Playing for Underwood isn’t easy, as he’s known for ripping into his players for mistakes. Underwood saw seven players transfer since he took over.

Now, Underwood has players who embody what he wants to do as a coach. He prides his guys on doing the little things, and this year’s team has exemplified that. Earlier in the season, Dosunmu got on Adam Miller in practice for not diving on a loose ball. A few weeks later, Miller sprawled out on the Cameron Indoor Stadium floor for a loose ball. On Saturday, in a key moment in Illinois’ win over Iowa, Andre Curbelo stripped Hawkeye guard Jordan Bohannon and dove on the floor, resulting in a dunk.

“Those are all the details,” Underwood said after the Iowa game. “All the little things that don’t show up in a stat sheet. That’s just a play that wins games, and it’s our culture. I’m glad to see ‘Belo listen”

On Sunday, Underwood’s voyage from Big Ten bottom-feeder to Big Ten champion was complete, as Illinois cut down the nets at Lucas Oil Stadium. While this was happening, the NCAA Selection Show was being shown on the jumbotron. The No. 1 seed in the Midwest region belonged to Underwood’s crew, something he won’t take for granted.

“There’s nothing better than hearing your name come across and be seen on the screen when it’s called for the NCAA tournament,” Underwood said. “There’s 353 Division-I teams, 68 get in. This group deserved that.”


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