Focus shifts to future after season-ending loss

Focus shifts to future after season-ending loss

CHICAGO — The Illinois locker room was a somber one late Thursday night at the United Center. An open locker room — mandatory at the Big Ten tournament in contrast to the Illini’s regular-season operations — provided an unvarnished glimpse into the Illinois’ players state of mind after the 83-62 season-ending loss to Iowa in the teams’ second-round matchup.

Aaron Jordan sat at his locker with the epitome of a thousand-yard stare. The Illini senior had played the final game of his career. Jordan’s demeanor was matched by his teammates.

There was the pall of a season ended too soon for Illinois’ liking. That was tinged with a lingering sense of determination. The Illini weren’t ready for their season to end so soon. They were leaving Chicago with unfinished business — even if five wins in five days and a Big Ten tournament title was an improbability.

The focus was on the future.

“(Thursday night) was an ending, but I loved coaching this team each and every day,” Underwood said. “This is the beginning of bringing Illinois basketball back.”

That’s shaping up to be quite the uphill battle, though. Thursday’s loss capped a mostly disappointing season for Illinois from a results standpoint  even if Underwood said he was more interested in the process than wins and losses. Simply put, there were more of the latter.

Illinois was playing Thursday, but it took an overtime win against Northwestern on the opening day of the Big Ten tournament after another bottom four finish in the conference. The Illini’s 21 losses set a program record for futility.

Still, Underwood and Co. aren’t deterred.

“I kind of took this as a learning experience,” freshman guard Tevian Jones said. “Being able to get this far with so many new guys, that was really good for us. I feel like this created momentum for us going into next season. It wasn’t the outcome we wanted, but I’m very positive right now and very positive for next season.”

Underwood’s primary concern was laying the foundation for what he’s trying to build. The team’s “culture” was a season-long talking point, and it was something the Illinois coach said was established through “little things.” Simple expectations like showing up on time, going to class and working hard each and every moment on the court as well.

“It was about establishing our culture, and we got that done,” Underwood said. “That’s the piece that allows Illinois basketball to be good. … I don’t look at the wins and losses. For me, it was about the process this year. We’ve got to continue to grow and continue to get better — absolutely — but I’m really, really excited for the future.”

Underwood has held on to now two different national evaluations on the strength of college basketball programs across the country.

The Associated Press released a ranking of the top 100 programs of all time in March 2017, with the Illini coming in at No. 11. Forbes ranked the current most valuable college basketball teams earlier this week, and Illinois — now six straight years without an NCAA tournament appearance — was valued ninth.

“It’s big business,” Underwood said. “This program deserves to be great — not just have great teams — and there’s a difference. You’ve got to lay the foundation. You’ve got to build it. There are going to be ups and downs in doing that, and you’ve got to go through that process. There’s no shortcuts.”

No shortcuts means Illinois will be back to work — and soon. Underwood said his team deserved some down time, and the Illini will get it. But spring workouts are coming, and that will mean more time with strength and conditioning coach Adam Fletcher in addition to the continued effort toward improvement on the basketball court.

“Right now you have to self-evaluate a little bit — sit back and look back at the year,” freshman forward Giorgi Bezhanishvili said. “What happened and how it happened. After that, get to work. We’re everyday guys. As you sit back and look at it, then you can tell what has to be worked on. I can tell you that in a couple weeks, three weeks, a month, but obviously a lot of work has to be done.”

Recruiting will be a key part of Illinois’ offseason, too. The Illini have two commitments in the 2019 class from five-star center Kofi Cockburn and four-star center Antwan January, but neither signed in November and Illinois still has an open scholarship to use on another wing.

It’s part of Underwood’s rebuilding process — a process that delivered serious challenges during the 2018-19 season.

“They’ll look back on this and understand how much this season meant next year at this time and how important it was to go through the trials and tribulations,” Underwood said. “You only become better when you deal with adversity, and there was a lot. There were a lot of challenges.

“The one thing we didn’t get to do as a team was get a foothold on confidence because of the schedule, yet I have no regrets about the schedule. Having gone through all those battles and having done this and done that, those experiences won’t be new anymore. They’ll be experiences we’ve grown from. … Then we’ve got a chance to sit in this locker room in the not too distant future and be here on Saturday or Sunday.”