Illini Basketball Rebuild Has Now Come Full Circle


The NCAA Tournament selection committee, always obsessed first and foremost with narratives and storylines, got the match-up they wanted when they set up the bracket with #1 seed Illinois facing #8 seed Loyola-Chicago tomorrow in the second round.

Just to belabor the point even more, Illini coach Brad Underwood could face his most recent former employer, Oklahoma State, in the next round too. That’s how brackets are made! On the eve of the match-up with Loyola, Underwood and All-American guard Ayo Dosunmu did a media Zoom to preview the game.

Three years ago, Loyola went on a Cinderella run to the Final Four, becoming the first school in the state since 2005 Illinois to reach the Final Four. That same season was Underwood’s first at Illinois, and it did not go well. They finished 14-18, 4-14 in the league, and were one-and-done in the Big Ten Tournament.

Due to the Big Ten’s goofy, misguided idea of putting the conference tourney in New York, scheduling mandated the event get moved up, and Illinois saw their season end in February. Not sure that’s ever happened at any other time.

The next season was even worse as Illinois broke the school record for single season losses, as they sunk lower to 12-21.

However, 2019-20 was a massive turnaround, as the Illini spent much of the season ranked in the AP top 25, and they were in line for a #6 or #7 seed in the big dance, on March 12, when everything grinded to a halt and the whole postseason was cancelled.

Now they’re a #1 seed, and picked by many prognosticators to win it all. Indeed it’s a “started from the bottom now we here” situation. In his media call ahead of the first round demolishing of Drexel, Underwood went into detail on the process of recruiting and rebuilding. He said that the first year of recruiting is just basically filling scholarships, getting guys, putting bodies to round out the roster.

The second year is when you starting getting your guys, and really begin to reshape the roster, in your mold with your players.

It makes sense now, when put that way and looking back at it that the Illini basketball turnaround occurred in year three of the Underwood era. Today, we asked the coach about how these rebuilding projects usually work, how long the timeline usually is to get makeover project completed.

“Every program is different, based on what you have returning,” he said. “I had seven guys returning at Stephen F. (Austin, hs first head coaching job), I only had a couple at Oklahoma State. It varies from program to program; we’ve had a good amount of turnover.

That means youth and inexperience, so I don’t put a timetable on those things; they vary from league to league. The Big Ten historically, is a very old league- year in and year out, the teams are older and more mature.”

At this point in history, Dosunmu is without a doubt one of the biggest program-changers that Illini basketball have ever seen. When he committed, Illinois was in the midst of a deep March Madness drought. Today, he’s everybody’s All-American, the USA Today Player of the Year and a Naismith and Wooden award finalist.

When Ayo choose Illinois, with his selection ceremony at the State St. Jordan Brand store in Chicago, I asked him why he choose the Illini over Wake Forest and everybody else. The Morgan Park graduate said it was because of Underwood’s prowess as a guard guru, and he specifically cited Juwan Evans.

Today we brought that and asked what Underwood has done to develop him so much and so well these past three years.

ayo dosunmu

“He instills confidence in you, and he just pushes you to be tough as nails,” said Dosunmu of Underwood in response.

“He pushes you to get the maximum capabilities out of you, every day in practice. He never lets up.

“He’s always approaching with the glass half-empty and it pushes me to be a better player and a better leader.”

Illinois leads the all-time series with Loyola 12-3, having won the last three, with the most recent meeting coming in 2011. Loyola won their only postseason meeting, during their national title season of 1963.

Tip off is 11:10 am central tomorrow, at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, with Jim Nantz and Bill Raftery on the call. Illinois have a 75% at winning, according to the ESPN predictive index.

IIlinois are favored by 7, with a moneyline of -300. The total is 133.5. Checkout BetQL for moneylines, point spreads, over/unders and much more for every NCAA tournament game.

Paul M. Banks runs The Sports Bank, partnered with News NowBanks, the author of “No, I Can’t Get You Free Tickets: Lessons Learned From a Life in the Sports Media Industry,” has regularly appeared in WGNSports IllustratedChicago Tribune and SB Nation. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.


  1. paulmbanks says

    how is life in Lake in the Hills, IL connecting through your Comcast account dude?

    Yeah, I know exactly who you are, so if I were you, I’d just stop now.