‘Let your hair down’: Illinois men’s basketball brings fun, relaxed mindset into NCAA tournament opener


Cameron Krasucki

Center Kofi Cockburn goes for a lay up during the Big Ten Tournament against Indiana on March 11. Cockburn talks about the strong correlation in the team having fun and giving their best performance.

By Jackson Janes, Staff Writer

On March 14, 2021, No. 2 Illinois walked into Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis looking to clinch its first Big Ten tournament title since 2005, taking on a No. 5 Ohio State side that had just taken down top-seeded Michigan in its previous game.

Needing an extra five minutes of overtime play to get the job done, the Illini celebrated the victory in front of an 8,000-person crowd that was limited due to COVID-19. Despite winning its conference tournament, though, Illinois was not able to celebrate for very long before being forced to quarantine.

“We never got to celebrate,” said head coach Brad Underwood. “We never got to get excited about the NCAA tournament. We played with a great chip on our shoulder going into the Big Ten Tournament. We won that, and then we were whisked off into quarantine for 24 hours.”

The Illini also never heard their name called during the selection show, instead standing on stage holding a trophy.

“We never got to put a finality, a final touch on that,” Underwood said. “To me, that’s the end of the regular season. It’s the start of the new, and it’s something to get excited about. This year, we’re gonna make sure we do that right.”

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One year later, Underwood wants to make sure his players soak up the moment better and enjoy their time more than they did last season, especially since both the Big Ten and NCAA tournaments were held in Indianapolis.

Sophomore guard Andre Curbelo says the team was very tense and stressed last year after the Illini earned their first bid to the Big Dance since 2013 and their first No. 1 seed since 2005.

Even with Illinois’ upset loss to No. 8 Loyola Chicago, Curbelo says there is no pressure to perform or set expectations.

“I don’t think there’s any pressure,” Curbelo said. “I think if anything it gives us a chance to even play a little more free and even more fun just because we know what happened last year. We might’ve not had a lot of fun, and we know that and it was a good lesson.

“So we’re gonna come in this year and hopefully come out tomorrow, have a lot of fun, smiles everywhere because we’ve been saying: When we have fun, that’s when we’re at our best.”

After making its second consecutive NCAA tournament appearance, Illinois opens its campaign with a meeting with No. 13 Chattanooga in Pittsburgh on Friday evening. The Mocs are a talented double-digit seed, and they are led by Illinois native and 6-foot-4-inch sophomore guard Malachi Smith, who averages 20.1 points per game.

Graduate student forward Silvio De Sousa transferred into the program from Kansas and is averaging 11.1 points, 7.0 rebounds and 1.1 blocks, while graduate student guard David Jean-Baptiste scores 14.6 points per game.

Jean-Baptiste sent Chattanooga to the NCAA tournament on a deep buzzer-beater three in its conference tournament final, their first berth in the competition since 2016.

The Mocs head into Pittsburgh with momentum while the Illini’s last game was an upset loss to the Indiana Hoosiers in the Big Ten Tournament one week ago. Junior center Kofi Cockburn is focused on soaking up what could be the final set of games of his college career.

“Whenever we’re tense and we’re overhyped, we never really play the way that we should,” Cockburn said. “(Underwood) just reminds us all the time just have fun, keep remembering the reason why you play basketball, why you started playing basketball and just remember all that fun that you had when you were younger and when you had nothing to worry about basically. 

“That’s when you play at your best, when you’re having fun, you’re sharing that energy with your guys, you’re elevating your guys.”

Underwood hopes to lead Illinois back to the second round of the NCAA tournament for a second straight season, and he recognizes that playing more loose and relaxed will be key to beating Chattanooga on Friday.

“We’ve had a great focus,” Underwood said. “We’ve had a great presence about us, but again just trying to tell guys to enjoy the little things, and enjoy the experience of it all and take it all in and let your hair down and let’s go play.”



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