For the fourth time in a row, the Illinois Fighting Illini have assembled an NCAA Tournament team.
For the fourth time in a row, they will not be in the Sweet Sixteen.
For some Illini fans, this is apparently an unacceptable performance from head coach Brad Underwood.
Look, I didn’t want to have to write this article and I tried to avoid it, but ultimately the chorus grew too loud for me to ignore. I’m writing this on Off Tackle Empire and not The Champaign Room because it’s imperative that I skip the editorial process completely and get this out there as soon as possible.
Firing Brad Underwood at this juncture would be the single most deranged act in the history of Illinois Fighting Illini athletics, and possibly Big Ten athletics, and I guarantee you the rest of the Big Ten would laugh at Illinois until the heat death of the universe.
But HOW, you ask, HOW can we CONTINUE to ACCEPT MEDIOCRITY? Are we seriously no better than this? Getting to the tournament is good enough? Doesn’t it bother you that we haven’t been to the round of sixteen since 2005?
Shut up and imagine this for a second. Illinois goes from fifteen years in the wilderness (making only three tournament appearances, none consecutively) to getting a 1-seed and a Big Ten league title in back-to-back years, replacing 85% of the roster including all of the starters, making the tournament anyway, then firing the man responsible for not winning enough.
This would be an absolutely unreal decision to make. What standards does it then set? Of course someone would take the job; it pays well. But how many years do they get to work when Brad Underwood’s present body of work isn’t good enough?
For a shade over 35 years, Illinois was a program that was part of March Madness and was often ranked, making 22 tournament appearances in 28 seasons. 2008 was the first missed tournament since 1999 and marked the end of the Golden Age, and the reason is widely agreed upon: Bruce Weber ran out of Bill Self’s players.
The golden years, of course, began with the hiring of Lou Henson. Or did they?
Henson had ZERO TOURNAMENT APPEARANCES in his first five seasons. He took over a struggling Illini program that was thirteen years removed from its last Elite 8 and last conference title, but by year six he was in the Sweet Sixteen. Underwood has had only five chances, since there was no 2020 tournament, but he’s produced a tournament-level team four times in a row and four times in six years. Henson made the tournament in 12 of his 21 seasons. When should patience with him have run out? Don’t these people remember how good Illinois was in the 50’s with the Whiz Kids?
Underwood has a similar record percentage-wise to Lon Kruger despite two horrible first seasons. His first season was guaranteed to be horrible due to the empty roster he inhabited; this was a side effect of retaining John Groce for one more year after which his first recruiting class would all graduate. Underwood has not been as good so far as Bill Self was at Illinois. Crucially, both Kruger and Self left for other jobs (the NBA and Kansas). It’s kind of a pointless comparison in that light.
Bruce Weber started out on a tear, but he couldn’t build a Big Ten championship team on his own. Brad Underwood did that.
But of course, I’m not yet addressing the NCAA Tournament, am I?
Okay, so the REAL reason everyone says they want to move on (or in the case of many posts, “I’m not saying I want him fired, I’m just saying....................(the blank means he should be fired)) is because of the NCAA Tournament record. Underwood failed to reach the Sweet 16 at vaunted basketball powerhouse Stephen F. Austin and lost in round 1 in his only season with Oklahoma State. He of course coached a hideous all-time heartbreaking upset loss to Loyola in the second round of the 2021 tournament. His Illini squeaked by 13-seed Chattanooga and then lost to eventual Final Four participant (and current title favorite) Houston, and then this year’s hastily-assembled squad ran into a buzzsaw in an 8-9 game.
This is true! Brad Underwood has not coached the Fighting Illini to the Sweet 16, and Illinois hasn’t been since 2005. You know what else they haven’t done since the mid-2000s?
- Win the Big Ten
- Win the Big Ten Tournament
- Appear in consecutive tournaments, much less 3 (would be 4 if no covid) in a row
Underwood has done all of those things!
If the Big Ten title doesn’t matter to you, you’re a casual fan and you need to shut the fuck up because you don’t know what you’re talking about and you have nothing invested in this program. You don’t watch regular season basketball, so nobody gives a shit what you have to say about this.
If you’ve seen enough because Underwood couldn’t advance out of the first weekend three times and that is enough data for you to know unequivocally that he’ll never do it, you should convert all of your assets to cash (including and especially your car and your home) and bet it all on sports teams that have covered three games in a row. After all, you know a pattern when you see it and you can’t possibly be wrong!
Who exactly do you want to replace Underwood? Would you trade him straight up for Juwan Howard? Would you hire away Texas’ interim coach? Sure he has a bad head coaching record at previous stops, but he Knows How To Get To The Sweet Sixteen!
At this juncture there is nobody Illinois could conceivably hire that is worth the risk of losing the first burst of sustained relevance we have had in a generation.
At this point, there’s three reasons you want this to happen:
- You’re a fan of a team Underwood whips relentlessly
- You can never forgive him for the only upset tournament loss on his Illinois resume, the infamous Loyola game. Hey, I’m not really over it, but I’m not SEEKING RETRIBUTION TWO YEARS LATER! Log off! Go outside. Touch grass.
- You’ve completely forgotten both the 15 years in the wilderness AND the two years on top of the Big Ten. As far as you’re concerned, the 2022-23 season directly followed the 2005-06 season and nothing that happened in between actually happened.
Illinois firing Brad Underwood right now would be a hundred times worse than the time they hired Bill Cubit as the full time head football coach. I am grateful that our athletic director is a good steward of the basketball program.
Should Underwood make some changes to his program? Of course. Any coach in pursuit of winning and excellence should be refining their process and learning from previous experiences. Underwood has in fact demonstrated his ability to do this!
What could or should he do differently? Stay tuned. That’s not this article. That is for the post-mortem. This article, however, was apparently needed.