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Michigan v Illinois
Kofi Cockburn and the Illini have handed a double dose of “Ls” to Michigan.
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Underwood’s Vyin’ Illini are back from the abyss — and making March meaningful again

A Big Ten title? Could happen. A long-awaited return to the NCAA Tournament? Will happen. Illinois’ Brad Underwood didn’t wait 26 years to become a major-college head coach to let this thing slip away.

CHAMPAIGN — How much here-we-go-again is enough? How many incomplete efforts, narrow losses, embarrassing losses and mouthfuls of bitter irrelevance is one team supposed to be able to swallow?

Illinois finally reached its fill in the first week of December.

And what a week that was, familiar-seeming to Illini basketball fans, yet no less excruciating for it. It began with an 81-79 home loss to lightly regarded Miami in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge, a game in which Illinois stormed back — to no avail — after falling behind by 27, thanks to a pathetic first half. It ended with a 59-58 heartbreaker at No. 3 Maryland in the Big Ten opener, with the Illini building a 15-point lead in the second half, only to fritter away the last of it in the closing seconds.

It left a whole lot of people continuing to question the job done by coach Brad Underwood, who had entered the season with an unsightly record of 26-39 at the school — the first Illinois coach to begin his tenure with back-to-back below-.500 seasons.

It left Underwood questioning things, too.

‘‘We had already lost the Miami game after having the ball on the last possession,’’ says Underwood, 56. ‘‘And now we’d had the ball late, with the lead, against the No. 3 team in the country — in a game we’d controlled — and everything that could go against us went against us, and we’d literally given them the game.

‘‘I remember vividly telling my wife, ‘It’ll be interesting to see which way this thing goes.’ Because, coming into practice the day after that Maryland game, I didn’t know what I was going to find as far as the team. I didn’t know if [we] could keep it together.’’

Two months later, everything about Illinois basketball looks and feels different. Better. Alive. The rematch Friday against Maryland at State Farm Center might as well have taken place on another planet.

The Terrapins won again — rallying impressively from a 14-point first-half deficit in the process — but the stage was grand. This time, it was a clash for sole possession of first place in the conference. Even after the 75-66 loss, the Illini remain squarely in the title race. Of greater importance, especially to their long-suffering fan base: They’re barreling toward their first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2013. A seven-game Big Ten winning streak, the school’s longest since the Final Four season of 2004-05, was like a trip back in time, thrilling Illini Nation for nearly all of January.

Rewind to halftime of the Miami game, with the Illini trailing 50-31. Something told Underwood he should resist blowing up at his players. Instead, he challenged their togetherness and connectivity. In doing so, he gave them an opportunity to show him they were the team they’d all said they wanted to be.

Privately, though, he wondered: Were they an immature group that would continue to frazzle at signs of weakness? Or was there more strength than that in their bond?

As Underwood walked into that practice the day after the Maryland game, he wanted to believe the second-half comeback against the Hurricanes and the 40-minute fight against the Terrapins had been steps forward. Then came the next couple of hours.

‘‘Man, they were up,’’ he says. ‘‘They were focused. They were hungry. They were bonded. I knew then that we had a chance. I knew that we could overcome a lot.’’

So it is written

From eighth grade through his senior year of college, Underwood kept a journal. It’s a thick, raggedy old thing with perforated pages that ought to be in the desk of his on-campus office at the Ubben Basketball Complex, for then we could take one heck of a trip down memory lane. Alas, it’s packed away at his mother’s house in McPherson, Kansas.

Then again, Underwood doesn’t exactly recall pouring his innermost thoughts onto the pages of that journal. Instead, he filled them with records of his daily workouts. Growing up in McPherson, Underwood was more of a natural on the football field and the golf course. But basketball stirred his soul, and the game had him in its clutches from eighth grade on.

By the time he finished playing at Kansas State, he says, he had entered the details of thousands of workouts.

‘‘I missed 14 days in eight years,’’ he says. ‘‘I worked out everyday. [Due to] sickness, whatever, I only missed 14 days. That’s how much basketball meant to me.’’

Underwood was a tough-minded 6-4 guard who could shoot. As a freshman, he played for a 3-25 Hardin-Simmons team at the lowest imaginable rung of Division I. From there, he moved up in quality — if not, technically, in class — to Independence (Kansas) Community College, where, as a sophomore, he led his team to the junior-college title game. That got him to Kansas State, 100 miles from home, where in two seasons he started eight games and scored a total of 105 points.

Underwood at Kansas State.
Courtesy of Kansas State athletics

‘‘I was the guy who had to work at the game to be good at it,’’ he says. ‘‘I knew I was never going to be great, but I was really proud to go to college and [that] my parents never had to pay a penny. I was never going to be the most talented guy on the court, but nobody was going to fight and grind harder.’’

The expectations Illini players face from their coach reflect that attitude, and practices are famously intense. Some would change that to ‘‘infamously.’’ Four players transferred out of the program and two others cut ties after Underwood’s first season. After complaints about Underwood’s language and treatment of players surfaced, the school conducted an internal investigation that cleared him in September 2018.

Those players who have flourished — Ayo Dosunmu, Trent Frazier, Giorgi Bezhanishvili, Andres Feliz, Alan Griffin — are among the best-conditioned guys in the Big Ten. The rest of the league noticed that even before the victories started coming.

‘‘When teams are preparing for Illinois, they prepare for a hard battle because we play hard-hard,’’ says Bezhanishvili, a sophomore forward who was raised in Georgia and Austria before landing in the United States for his senior year of high school.

During the Big Ten’s preseason media day in Rosemont, Bezhanishvili gathered opponents from Michigan, Purdue and Wisconsin in hopes of picking their brains. He was surprised when the conversation turned instead to how hard the 2018-19 Illini — a 12-21 team, mind you — had played.

Michigan’s Isaiah Livers and others already had heard all about the next-level rigorousness of routine Underwood practices.

‘‘Livers said, ‘Oh, my God, we’ll pray for you when we’re in practice,’ ’’ Bezhanishvili says, laughing at the memory. ‘‘Because he knows how hard we do [it]. That’s obviously respect from the other teams and the other guys.’’

After two losses to the Illini this season, Michigan understands even better now.

A break to brag about

Victory No. 1 against Michigan, a 71-62 affair at the Farm on Dec. 11, came four days after the loss at Maryland and was Illinois’ first triumph against a top-five foe in almost seven years. It was a sign of things to come, no doubt, but it wasn’t the Illini’s last dud before they put the pedal to the metal.

There still was an ugly 63-56 loss to run-of-the-mill Missouri in the annual Braggin’ Rights game in St. Louis to get to.

‘‘We came out flat,’’ Dosunmu says. ‘‘We didn’t have our energy.’’

Underwood made a key misread before that game, instructing his players to stay even-keeled in the face of the Tigers’ emotional swings. The Illini fell behind by double digits early in the second half and never really got back into it.

‘‘It showed me I still have to continue to lead and had to provide more energy, and I didn’t do that prior to that game,’’ Underwood says. ‘‘That game was much more on me than on them.’’

The loss was worth it because it led Illinois into a winter break when no stone was left unturned. Many a good college team has lost its momentum over winter break, but the Illini discovered theirs. If their 63-37 dismantling of Purdue at the Farm didn’t hammer that home, a clutch 71-70 victory at Wisconsin — ending a 15-game losing streak to the Badgers — certainly did.

Illinois won its last four conference games during the break, repeatedly digging deep in critical moments and finding more than what was left in opponents’ tanks. Underwood’s decision to move Dosunmu off the ball and Frazier to the point proved helpful to an offense that, even now, can come and go. The team’s work at the defensive end and on the boards soared, becoming the most dependable strengths of the team.

And the better things got, the more the team’s leading players — Dosunmu, in particular — could be found at Ubben to put in extra work on their own time.

‘‘That’s what I signed up for,’’ says Dosunmu, a former Morgan Park star. ‘‘You’ve got to sacrifice. Gym and sleep.’’

“Gym and sleep,” Dosunmu says of a winter break that steeled his team.
“Gym and sleep,” Dosunmu says of a winter break that steeled his team.
AP Photos

Seven-footer Kofi Cockburn, the Big Ten’s top freshman, kicked his already-impressive work rate up a notch, too. Really, everyone who’s anyone on this team did.

‘‘Ayo is one of the most dedicated players I’ve ever seen in my life,’’ Cockburn says. “Just seeing him come in every day and put in that extra work, it motivated me to do the same thing. Now I believe in it and I trust it.’’

Underwood excitedly balls his hands into fists just thinking about it.

‘‘I’ve never had a Christmas break like we had this year,’’ he says. ‘‘It was an unbelievable focus on just working and getting better — a month deal — and that should pay off for us the rest of the way.’’

Patience pays off

Bob Huggins first saw Underwood at work in 1992, when the former was building a monster at Cincinnati and the latter was in his first head-coaching job at Dodge City (Kansas) Community College. Huggins was recruiting one of Underwood’s players, Art Long, and a friendship was born.

Huggins, now in his 13th season at West Virginia, stole an hour on Super Bowl Sunday to watch some of Illinois’ hard-fought defeat at Iowa.

‘‘I don’t think anybody who knows Brad is surprised by the success he’s having,’’ Huggins says. ‘‘His team plays hard. They play hard and they guard, which gives them a chance.’’

Frank Martin got to know Underwood during the 2005-06 season. Martin was getting ready to join Huggins’ staff at Kansas State, and Underwood was in his third and final season as coach at Daytona Beach (Florida) Community College. Martin, now the coach at South Carolina, was recruiting Blake Young, who would go on to sign with the Wildcats.

‘‘I called Huggs and said, ‘Forget the stats — this kid is going to have a culture of competing and working,’ ’’ Martin says. ‘‘That was my first impression of Brad and the effect he has on players, and it stuck with me. Then Huggs went down there, and it stuck with him.’’

Huggins hired Underwood pretty much then and there, and that’s how the latter reached the big time as an assistant coach — at K-State, just as he had as a player. It was nearly two decades after he had gotten his start at Dodge City.

Six seasons later, in 2012 — with Huggins long gone and Martin now off to South Carolina — Underwood was passed over for the top job at his alma mater, which went to Bruce Weber instead. That one hurt, but what’s a grinder to do? Underwood rejoined Martin for a season, then finally landed a Division I program of his own. It was Stephen F. Austin in Nacogdoches, Texas, where all Underwood did was go three-for-three in Southland Conference regular-season and tournament titles and drink in the magic of back-to-back-to-back NCAA Tournaments.

‘‘You don’t appreciate those things sometimes until you don’t have them,’’ he says, not the least bit sheepishly.

Through two rocky seasons at Illinois, Underwood kept at it even as many in the NCAA-starved fan base fretted and stewed — and, in some cases, did a little angry writing.

‘‘Here’s the one advantage of taking 26 years to become a head coach: I know the process,’’ he says. ‘‘I’ve never, ever doubted the process. I know the process works.

‘‘And I’ve never been concerned with what other people think or what other people say. I know what I stand for. I know what success looks like. This was the first time I’ve gotten a lot of hate mail and emails. I just threw them away.’’

Who’s squawking now? Nobody, that’s who.

Less than six weeks hence, the Illini will — barring an unimaginable collapse — reappear in the Big Dance. Perhaps they’ll arrive with the glitz and glamor of a Big Ten regular-season or tournament title.

But first comes mighty Michigan State to the Farm on Tuesday. Like everyone else, Underwood sees Tom Izzo’s program as the best one in the conference. The others in Underwood’s top four are, in no particular order, Purdue, Wisconsin and Michigan. The big idea is, naturally, for the Illini to bump one of the Big Four aside. That’ll take time and staying power to accomplish.

‘‘It’s what I strive for every single day,’’ Underwood says.

He thinks often of a scene last February in East Lansing, Michigan, where the Spartans beat Illinois in their final home game. Guard Lourawls ‘‘Tum Tum’’ Nairn Jr. had lost his starting job as a senior. He had played the fewest minutes of his career. But he never had stopped working, and Izzo loved him for it.

‘‘The game is ending, and ‘Tum Tum’ goes and kisses center court,’’ Underwood says. ‘‘That’s what you want, isn’t it? That’s what you want your players to be proud of and your fans to be able to cheer for. And that’s here. I see that. That’s special. It can be that here. It should be that here.’’

Perhaps it will be. The Illini sure are working on it.

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