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Illinois coach Brad Underwood deserves credit for breakthrough

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When Brad Underwood was introduced as Illinois men’s basketball coach seven years ago in Champaign, the idea of a national title seemed far-fetched.

The John Groce era was a disaster and Underwood had never coached a team past the second round of the NCAA Tournament in three attempts at Stephen F. Austin and one year at Oklahoma State.

“I dream big,” Underwood said that day in 2017. “Winning a national championship is something that can happen here.”

Underwood turned the program around in its third season in 2020, going 21-10, but the NCAA Tournament was canceled due to the pandemic. Early tournament exits the last three seasons took their toll, and a growing reputation as a good recruiter who couldn’t coach in March made Underwood suspect to a sizable number of Illini fans.

Underwood’s animated personality on the bench — shouting at players and waving his arms like a graduate of the Bobby Knight School of Coaching through Intimidation — made him an easy target after losses. He sometimes lambasted his players’ effort after games, including an epic rant following a loss to Penn State in December 2022 when he delivered a Bronx cheer during his postgame press conference and said: “The lack of leadership on this team is zero. It’s none. It’s inexcusable.”

Fast-forward to last Saturday’s second-round tournament win over Duquesne in Omaha, Neb., which ended the school’s 19-year drought since their last Sweet 16 appearance in 2005. A celebratory Underwood was seen blasting his players with a super-soaker squirt gun in the postgame locker room, like an overgrown kid on a sugar high.

“You’ve got to celebrate winning,” he said afterward. “That’s one thing I’ve always been big on and we did that today.”

The players were surprised by the sneak attack from Underwood and his staff, but enjoyed seeing their coach let his slicked-back hair down.

“Big moment,” junior forward Dain Dainja said. “The coaches came in here with their water guns and got us hyped a little bit. We were all so locked in, like ‘Next game.’ We love winning and definitely have to celebrate these moments.”

The win got Illinois over the hump, but a much bigger challenge awaits in Boston. The third-seeded Illini head into Thursday’s Sweet 16 game against No. 2 seed Iowa State as slight underdogs, and would likely be a bigger underdog Saturday if they meet top-seed UConn for a shot at the Final Four in Glendale, Ariz.

Illinois coach Brad Underwood watches during practice ahead of the an NCAA Tournament game on March 20, 2024 in Omaha, Neb. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
Illinois coach Brad Underwood watches during practice ahead of the an NCAA Tournament game on March 20, 2024 in Omaha, Neb. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

No one feels like an underdog in the Illini locker room. They’ve played their best ball of the season since Underwood criticized their effort in a March 5 loss to Purdue, when he warned them that not going after loose balls or rebounding would lead to another early exit.

“That’s what sends you home in March,” he said.

They’ve won six straight since that night, including three in the Big Ten Tournament and two wins in the Omaha regional over Morehead State and Duquesne.

The Underwood you see looking like a mad man on your flat-screen TV isn’t necessarily the guy the players know. Senior forward Coleman Hawkins, one of the leaders Underwood criticized in 2022, said the coach is misunderstood.

“It’s cool playing for him,” Hawkins said. “Once you’ve been around him for four years like I’ve been, you can tell he’s just like us. He’s goofy. He laughs. He tells funny jokes.

“The intensity is something I look past now. It doesn’t really affect me. He’s a cool guy and especially off the court, you wouldn’t expect it, but he’s really a funny guy.”

Perhaps there is a method to his madness after all. After all, he is a disciple of Bob Huggins, learning from the master of mind games when he was an assistant at Kansas State.

“He gets the most out of his players,” junior guard Luke Goode said. “He expects greatness and you wouldn’t want it any other way as a player. If you don’t have a coach that is going to push you every day and push the team to be the best it can be, you wouldn’t want to be there. He’s definitely intense, but he’s a great coach.”

Do Illini players just have to have thicker skins?



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