After Illinois beat Northwestern in overtime on the first night of the Big Ten tournament at the United Center, coach Brad Underwood wondered aloud if maybe, just maybe, a 13-win Illini also-ran might peak at the perfect time and pull off something special.
“You only need a little ripple to create a tidal wave,” he said.
Instead, the 11th-seeded Illini sank as sixth-seeded Iowa dominated the second half of an 83-62 victory.
It was 37-31 after a first half in which the teams traded runs and fans on both sides took turns getting loud. The high point for the Illini (13-20) came when guard Ayo Dosunmu made a steal near midcourt and dribbled in — grinning the whole time — for a layup that capped a 9-0 run and brought his team within 30-29.
But the Illini were revealed as pretenders from there. Iowa’s zone defense completely flummoxed Underwood’s young lineup, and the Hawkeyes (22-10) had wide-open shooters seemingly everywhere at the other end.
Iowa got 17 points from Nicholas Baer, several monster dunks by Tyler Cook and enough open looks to shoot over 50 percent from both two- and three-point range. It will face No. 3 seed Michigan in Friday’s quarterfinals.
The harsh truth, meanwhile, about the Illini: They didn’t resemble a team fighting for its postseason life. When the going got nasty, they looked all too ready to accept the inevitable.
“It’s tough,” said Dosunmu, the former Morgan Park star who led the Illini in scoring as a freshman. “I felt we had an up-and-down season.”
It was a season that might’ve been, but never was, and yet it gave most Illini fans enough tastes of promise to believe in what’s next anyway.
Yes, there is lots of exciting young talent, with Dosunmu and fellow freshmen Giorgi Bezhanishvili and Tevian Jones — along with sophomore Trent Frazier — all expected, at this point, to be back. And the anticipation for incoming center Kofi Cockburn, a potential game-changer of a recruit, is off the charts and probably should be.
There is every reason to believe the Illini will be much better — with a legitimately high ceiling — in 2019-20.
“This was the beginning of bringing Illinois back,” Underwood said.
On the other hand, there is no earthly reason this season’s squad needed to end with the lowest winning percentage (.364) at the school since 1974-75.
“I’m not concerned about the record,” Underwood said.
But the record speaks for itself even if it doesn’t tell the complete story. The Illini are 26-39 in two seasons on Underwood’s watch. Underwood likes to separate himself from responsibility for his first team’s lack of success — he again said after this game that Year 2 on his contract really was more like Year 1 for his program — but the reality is he must own the whole thing.
After all, he coached only one season at Oklahoma State, led the Cowboys to the NCAA Tournament and got the Illinois job. Presumably, Underwood never told athletic director Josh Whitman to ignore the bit on his resume about a winning season in Stillwater.
Another highly questionable Underwood position: referring to Illinois, which hasn’t been to the NCAA Tournament since 2013, as “one of the top 10 programs in the country.” He said that, too, after being blown out by Iowa for the second time in as many meetings this season.
Top 10? Not remotely close to being true. But it’s undeniable the Illini should be quite a bit better this time next year.