A reason for optimism

A reason for optimism

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CHAMPAIGN — Brad Underwood was center stage for Monday night's 96th annual Fighting Illini Men's Basketball Banquet after watching the festivities from a side table last season not long after being hired.

Underwood's first season was one of change at Illinois. New coaching staff. New style of play.

A handful of new players.

The 2017-18 season, Underwood readily admitted, was also one of frustrations. Numerous close losses, including three overtime games in Big Ten play. A 14-18 overall record and early exit from the Big Ten tournament.

But Underwood also stressed this past season was one of growth. It's a word he used several times. And it was growth that had him feeling positive about the future of Illinois basketball.

"We maybe didn't end up with as many wins as we all wanted, but that doesn't mean that the season was a bad one," Underwood said Monday night at the I Hotel in front of a packed banquet room. "This is the start of a process. I think every one of these players that was a member of this basketball team has a lot to be very, very proud of. As we continue to build this thing, they can say they were on the ground floor of it.

"There were a lot of highs, a lot of lows and a lot of fun. There was a lot of anguish, and that's what makes it very, very special to be a part of a team. The saying, 'Everyday guys,' I hope is something they take with them the rest of their lives."

Most of the regular end-of-the-year awards were handed out Monday night. Leron Black earned the Illini Rebounding Award, and Kipper Nichols took home the Ralf Woods Free Throw Trophy. Aaron Jordan's resurgent junior season saw him honored with the Orange Krush Three-Point Shooting Award, and freshman guard Trent Frazier was the winner of the Lou Henson Courage Award.

Illinois did not, however, name a team MVP for just the second time in program history (2007-08 being the other season). The Matto Award — named in honor of former Illini Matt Heldman — was also not awarded for the first time since its inception in 2002.

Five players from the 2017-18 roster were also not in attendance Monday night, including Mark Alstork and all four players that have announced they'll either transfer (Mark Smith, Michael Finke and Te'Jon Lucas) or not use their final year of eligibility (Cameron Liss).

Finke narrowed down his list of potential transfer destinations earlier Monday, with Grand Canyon, Nevada, Penn State, Stanford and Vanderbilt still in the running for the 6-foot-10 forward from Champaign. It's a list that topped 60 programs that reached out once Finke announced his decision to use his final year of eligibility as a graduate transfer.

"It was very humbling," Finke said about his foray back into the world of being recruited. "Some (teams) I never would have thought would reached out to me."

Finke said several factors played into whittling his choices to a final five. He wants to get out of the Midwest — experience something new his final year of college — and find a team that can both compete for a conference title and make the NCAA tournament and continue to develop his game.

"I want to go to a place with a system I feel like I could succeed — a place that could develop me and help me get to the next level," Finke said. "I really tried to study the teams and the players that are coming back and how I kind of fit with them. Basically all five schools said I'm the piece that could help them."

The next step for Finke is to visit all five of his finalists. The plan is to knock out Stanford, Nevada and Grand Canyon on a west coast swing first and then visit Vanderbilt and Penn State the last weekend of April before making a decision.

Grand Canyon, of course, has an extra draw in the fact Finke's younger brother, Tim, signed with the Antelopes in November.

"Playing with Tim would be awesome, there's no doubt about that," Finke said. "But at the end of the day, I'm not going to base my decision on the fact Tim's there. He's my brother. I'll see him the rest of my life.

"The amount of love they've shown is intriguing, but all the other schools have done the same. I really feel like I could see myself playing at all five schools."