OMAHA, Neb. — Brad Underwood took his time leaving the floor on Saturday night. He clapped his hands above his head as he walked toward the Illinois cheering section, then stopped and punched at the air twice in celebration.

Underwood would say later that it was for the fans, who hadn’t experienced getting out of the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament since 2005. His team cruised there with a dominant 89-63 second-round win over Duquesne, getting that damn monkey off the program’s back. But, if he were being honest, this had weighed on him too. He’d been to seven NCAA Tournaments as a head coach and never made it past the Round of 32, including a frustrating second-round loss as a No. 1 seed three years ago to Loyola Chicago.

This wasn’t just an Illinois problem; it’s a Big Ten problem.

The league hasn’t produced a national champion since Michigan State in 2000. Most teams build to win in their league, and that has been the Big Ten’s issue. You win in March with guards. You win in the Big Ten with bigs.

And that 2021 team? Very Big Ten-ish, built around 7-foot behemoth Kofi Cockburn.

“When we lost as a (No, 1), we had holes,” Underwood said. “And we were really good. Ayo (Dosunmu) was obviously a pro. Kofi was an All-American. But we had no positional size. We got away with it, because of Kofi. And yet, we were very, very limited in what we could do offensively and defensively.”

Underwood made a decision then. He was no longer going to build with the Big Ten in mind; he was building for March.

He had one more season with Cockburn, surrounding him with little guards who could shoot. But once the big fella was gone, it was time to lean into where he saw the game was going.

“We started recruiting bigger wings,” he said. “We’ve got a small guard or two in our program, but really understanding that versatility was much more key than having a 7-footer. I enjoyed Kofi. I’ve hated playing against Zach Edey, but we’ve also got to figure out ways to have continued success in the postseason as well.”

This season the Illini start five players all 6-foot-6 or taller. Underwood likes to say they start five power forwards, because they’ve all played that position at one time in their career.

After one weekend, it looks like Underwood might have much more than a second-weekend team. The Illini head to the East Regional in Boston as hot as anyone in this tournament, following up a Big Ten tournament title with two convincing wins in Omaha. They head to Boston with the best offense in the country, rising to No. 1 in adjusted efficiency at KenPom.com.

And they got there with a little help from a new friend.

Continue reading.

GO FURTHER

Illinois finally found the formula for getting past NCAA Tournament’s first weekend


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