'Our fans are anxious to embrace this next generation of Illini basketball'

'Our fans are anxious to embrace this next generation of Illini basketball'

CHAMPAIGN — Football and men’s basketball are the two pillars on which the entirety of Illinois athletics are built. 

Those two pillars are in pretty rough shape. The Illini football team has made three bowl games in the last 10 seasons. Men’s basketball has made the same number of NCAA tournament appearances in that span.

Basketball’s drought, though, is a little longer. Brad Underwood’s first season at Illinois marked the fifth straight season without an NCAA tournament bid. By virtue of a shortened Big Ten season, the Illini didn’t even play into March.

Returning basketball to its status as perennial tournament contender and getting football to a consistency not shown since the mid-1980s to early ‘90s is at the top of Illinois athletic director Josh Whitman’s to-do list.

“It’s incredibly important for a lot of reasons,” Whitman said. “That’s how a lot of people form their opinion about our athletic program, about our university. We talk a lot about the importance of athletics not just in the realm of wins and losses, but what a successful athletic program can mean to enhance the brand and reputation of the University of Illinois.

“I’m an unabashed believer of that. Using football and men’s basketball to shine a brighter spotlight on Champaign-Urbana and on the good things that are happening at our university at large is really at the top of our list of reasons for being.”

Whitman made a coaching change in Illinois basketball a year after doing the same in football. That puts Underwood’s rebuild a year behind Lovie Smith’s, but Underwood has been just as active in turning over his roster. 

Just two scholarship players remain on the Illinois basketball roster that played for John Groce in senior guard Aaron Jordan and redshirt junior forward Kipper Nichols. Underwood has now even lost three of his own players from the Illini’s 2017 class with the transfers of Mark Smith and Greg Eboigbodin and Matic Vesel’s return to Slovenia after one season.

“I’m not surprised, but I didn’t necessarily know what would be necessary to move us forward,” Whitman said about both Underwood and Smith essentially stripping their respective programs for parts and starting from scratch.

“I’m excited about the new faces that we have involved, and I’m really looking forward to seeing them grow and develop and compete,” Whitman continued. “I think we’ve brought on some incredibly competitive people — strong leaders, great work ethics. People who are excited to be here and be a part of this program.”

Underwood’s second Illinois team will have more newcomers than returning scholarship players. Perhaps as many as double the newcomers should he fill two of his three open scholarships.

Progress for Illinois basketball in Underwood’s second season comes down to culture and competitiveness, according to Whitman. The Illini, he said, took strides in improving both during what turned into a sub-.500 record during the 2017-18 season. 

“I felt like we took a tremendous step forward in terms of our toughness,” Whitman said. “I felt like we took a step forward in terms of our competitiveness. Did we win every game that we wanted to? Absolutely not, and there were certainly some games that were harder at the conclusion than others.

“But in terms of our competitiveness, we were in games. There were only one or two games where when I went in the locker room after the game and looked at Brad and said, ‘Wow, we got waxed.’ That was a good feeling to know that we had a chance to go out there and stand toe to toe with some really strong basketball programs.”

More positive steps in those areas is what Whitman is both looking for and expecting from the Illini in 2018-19.

“It will be a different team than I think a lot of people anticipated it would be,” he said. “We’ll have a lot of new faces on the roster, but excited to see those guys coalesce and come together as a group. I know that our fans are anxious to embrace this next generation of Illini basketball.”

Scott Richey can be reached at 217-351-5605, by email at srichey@news-gazette.com and on Twitter @srrichey.