Underwood praises Illini's resilience after rough season

Underwood praises Illini's resilience after rough season

CHAMPAIGN — The record wasn't what Brad Underwood wanted this past season.

A 12-21 finish didn't cut it.

But even with that program-record-setting number of losses, the second-year Illini coach said he'd never been prouder of a group in his 32 years of coaching.

"Everything that we did this year, we're going to look back next year and we're going to say, 'We needed that,'" Underwood said. "We had to have bumps in the road. We had to have hiccups. We had to have the moments when it was hard, when it was tough. We had to get smacked at Nebraska. We had to feel that so we know we'd never go through that crap again."

That's where Underwood's reflections on the 2018-19 season have brought him in the 33 days between the season-ending loss to Iowa in the Big Ten tournament and Monday night's 97th annual Kiwanis Illinois Basketball Banquet at the I Hotel.

The group of players that sat before Underwood during the banquet was a clear reason. The only player not in attendance Monday night was graduate transfer Adonis De La Rosa, who was in Florida training for a basketball opportunity overseas.

The rest of the Illini were there.

All of them.

"I think there's 724 in the portal (Monday)," Underwood said of the total number of transfers this offseason. "As of (Monday), there's nobody from Illinois. I think that speaks volumes to the relationship building, to the character (and) to the culture we want here at the University of Illinois in our program."

The same group that went through those struggles in 2018-19 — at least as of now — will be back in 2019-20. They’ll be a year more experienced having made it out the other side of a season Underwood said could have gone much differently in terms of how the Illini handled those struggles.

“The one thing I kept seeing was our resiliency, our fight,” Underwood said. “I saw guys go through tough moments, yet every time I turned around, we were back in the gym. They were working harder. I’m thinking, ‘We’ve got something going here.’

“It would have been very, very easy for this year to go the other way. The will of these guys to win, I think, is what we talked about in the preseason that we recruited a bunch of guys who are winners. Even though it didn’t show up maybe in the win-loss column this year, their attitude was everything that a winner is.”

What Underwood said Monday night to a room filled to capacity with Illinois fans is something his players have already heard. Even if freshman forward Giorgi Bezhanishvili joked that Underwood got a little long-winded during the banquet.

“We’ve talked about it a lot in the locker room,” said Bezhanishvili, who shared Most Outstanding Player honors with fellow freshman Ayo Dosunmu. “We have grown as a group — a young group that has grown through a lot of struggles this year. We are growing. Everything is possible for us.”

Underwood spoke Monday night about his players, along with his coaching and support staff, just three days after news broke of him being cleared in an internal investigation into his language and treatment of his players. Underwood’s appreciation for the people around him was clear in his words and tone at the banquet.

The Illini players also took to social media en masse throughout the weekend in support of their coach.

“We talk about truth and honesty, and that leads to trust,” Underwood said. “When you get that, you get loyalty. Those are the three pillars that we stand by. That’s great as a coach to know that, yet you’re always disappointed when somebody doesn’t work in your program.

“We’re still about being everyday guys and guys working and playing hard. … The guys are committed to working at an unbelievable level because they want to be good. It’s the natural maturation of our program.”

Bezhanishvili doesn’t have Twitter, but he expressed his support of Underwood — and shock about the allegations — Monday.

“People talk about it who are not there,” Bezhanishvili said. “They are not in the gym. They are not with us the whole time. They don’t see the love the coaches show us and how they take care of us. All those coaches love us. That’s the most important thing. To be coached hard, sometimes you need that. You really need that.

“As I’ve said, we’re a big, orange family. I’m still shocked that people say stuff like that. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter. We know — the coaches know and players know — what the truth is. We love each other and are a big family. That’s a fact.”

And the winners are ...

Here's a list of which Illinois men's basketball players were recognized at the team's year-end banquet Monday night:

Most Outstanding Player

Ayo Dosunmu, 6-5, Fr., Guard

Most Outstanding Player, Illini Rebounding Award

Giorgi Bezhanishvili, 6-9, Fr., Forward

Lou Henson Courage Award

Da'Monte Williams, 6-3, So., Guard

Kenny Battle Leadership Award, Orange Krush Three-Point Shooting Award

Aaron Jordan, 6-5, Sr., Guard

Matto Award,

Ralf Woods Free Throw Trophy,

Sixth Man of the Year

Andres Feliz, 6-2, Jr., Guard

-