Rough debut ride? Illinois’ Brad Underwood eagerly buckles in for more at MSG

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First-year coach Brad Underwood is thinking about Illinois in the NCAA Tournament. Hey, if he doesn’t, who will? (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

Illinois’ Brad Underwood did that thing again Tuesday morning. You know, that thing where the first-year coach talks about the NCAA Tournament and his sub-.500 Illini in the same sentence.

Hey, if he doesn’t, who will?

“As long as that Big Dance is still out there,” he said from New York, site of the Big Ten tournament, “that’s my focus right now.”

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A day before Wednesday’s Big Ten opener against Iowa at Madison Square Garden, Underwood put his 13th-seeded team — 14-17 overall and 4-14 in league play, tied for next-to-last with both the 12th-seeded Hawkeyes and 11th-seeded Minnesota — through the paces at the Brooklyn Nets’ practice facility.

His message to his players: The season isn’t over yet. If they take care of business against Iowa, they’ll get a crack at fifth-seeded Michigan on Thursday. As long as the next bridge doesn’t collapse, what else is there to do other than cross it?

Step by step, one detail at a time, anything is possible.

“If we were to make it to the championship, we will have played nine games in 14 days,” Underwood said, sounding like a man who actually believes such a run could happen.

A top-three seed has won 17 of 20 Big Ten tournaments to date, but there have been some Cinderella stories. Last year’s champion, Michigan, was the No. 8

seed. In 2008, Illinois, seeded 10th, reached the title game before falling to No. 1 seed Wisconsin.

The only other double-digit seed to reach the title game was Illinois in 1999, the second year of the event. A 3-13, last-place Illini squad knocked off a trio of ranked opponents — No. 23 Minnesota by three, No. 17 Indiana by 16 and No. 11 Ohio State by two — before losing to second-ranked, Final Four-bound Michigan State in the finale.

Underwood might want to break out that Illini team’s highlight reel to inspire his players. Well, not the “highlights” from a regular season in which it started out 0-7 in conference play and went 0-4 against Minnesota, Indiana and Ohio State. But definitely the action over four great days in Chicago, where guard Cory Bradford — the Big Ten’s freshman of the year — lit up the United Center with 75 points.

This season’s exceptionally young Illini have been led by junior forward Leron Black and freshman point guard Trent Frazier, who hasn’t had quite a Bradford-level debut, but often has come close. No one else has consistently made a positive impact, though the team’s play has ticked up down the stretch. The Illini have split their last four games, sandwiching hard-fought defeats against far superior Michigan State and Purdue in between victories over Nebraska and Rutgers.

“One thing I have a tremendous appreciation for is our growth,” Underwood said. “I knew there were going to be some battles. . . . I understood what was out there, a group of guys who’ve never done it, freshmen who had no clue.”

Still, playing on an easy-to-overlook Day 1 of this five-day event — the only other game is Minnesota against 14th-seeded Rutgers — always is a disappointment. It suggests the end is near, the postseason tournaments out of reach.

Underwood’s predecessor, John Groce, coached the Illini for five seasons. Before him was Bruce Weber for nine. Each had a low point of a 5-13 Big Ten season. Underwood has that beat already, not that anyone will care if he eventually turns the program around.

“Right now,” he said, “we’re just trying to win the next one.”

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