Brad Underwood on Illini going from 2-9 to the Big Dance: ‘Who says we can’t?’

With records like Illinois’ — 12-12 overall and 2-9 in Big Ten play — who needs enemies? Who needs critics? Who needs doubters? One would think the Illini would be harder on themselves by now than anyone else could be.

Or is that just my cynical side showing again?

It must be, because first-year coach Brad Underwood’s team still has plenty of pep in its step, steel in its spine and fire in its eyes. At least, Underwood himself has all those things. I asked him Wednesday what the Illini, with all those losses and so few wins, could possibly still have to play for this season.

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Illinois coach Brad Underwood hasn't given up on the possibility that his team will peak late and make some real noise. (AP/Rick Danzl)

Pride? Player development? A berth in one of those low-rent postseason tournaments no one likes to talk about?

“Everything,” he said.

Underwood actually believes one of those blistering streaks that can rewrite a team’s season story is still on the table for the Illini. Heroics at the Big Ten tournament? That, too. A Selection Sunday celebration in Champaign? What the heck, that, too.

All that is still at stake?

“Everything,” Underwood repeated.

“Anything can happen. I’m a believer in that. I’m a believer in our locker room and guys. If they can keep believing, why not? Who says we can’t?”

There’s a mountain of evidence — from stats to eyeball tests to Big Ten history — that says they can’t. For example, the Illini aren’t particularly adept at shooting, passing, rebounding or defending. I’m no coach, but all those things seem to matter. The team has veteran Leron Black inside, at times seemingly fighting alone. Freshman point guard Trent Frazier has been surprisingly good, but on a better-equipped team he’d be getting most of his seasoning on the practice floor.

By my reckoning, this “everything” talk is at least a year premature. Next season, when Morgan Park’s Ayo Dosunmu is in the fold and all the current Illini of consequence are back and, presumably, better, we could be looking at a program ready to return to prominence.

But that’s why the 54-year-old Underwood makes the big bucks. Even if the rest of the world figures the extremely young Illini already are playing for 2018-19, let it be known that Underwood isn’t dealing in 30,000-foot views or broad platitudes like “building for the future.”

He’s just crazy enough to want to win big right now.

“I think I have maybe one flaw as a coach that is [seeing] the big picture,” he said. “I can’t get to that point. I probably coach from a glass-half-empty philosophy most of the time because I’m always trying to get it full.”

That explains why Underwood was awake at 3:30 a.m. Wednesday, unable to sleep and watching video of Thursday’s opponent, Wisconsin. The first time the teams met, in Madison, the Illini were dominated in what Underwood considers their worst performance of the season.

“We were lifeless in that game.”

Yet their March dreams aren’t dead yet?

“I’m so simple,” he said. “I’m in the moment. It’s always about the process for me. I go out every single night and expect to win. I go to practice every day preparing to win, and I don’t get much beyond that.”

Almost forgot to mention: At Oklahoma State last season, a team coached by Underwood made the Big Dance by getting hotter than mice in a wool sock following an 0-6 start in Big 12 play.

Hey, it’s just something to think about.

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