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CHAMPAIGN — Brad Underwood is already sending out a warning.

Don’t call the fashion police on him Thursday morning if you turn on BTN or see photos on social media of the Illinois men’s basketball coach wearing an item he hasn’t worn in the past 19 months.

“I have to wear a suit for Big Ten media day,” Underwood said ahead of his appearance on Thursday at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis. “It won’t fit. It will look atrocious on me.”

A season after he and the rest of the Illini coaches donned polo shirts and khakis during games instead of their pre-pandemic suits, Underwood told a hearty crowd of Illinois fans during his appearance at the Esquire for ‘Monday Night SportsTalk,’ on WDWS 1400-AM that he’ll sport the casual look again this upcoming season.

“It was so refreshing to do that,” said Underwood, who has dropped a significant amount of weight since he last wore a suit on the sidelines when Illinois beat Iowa on March 8, 2020. “It was much easier packing, and just more comfortable. Unless the league says we’ve got to go with suits, we’re going to stay fairly casual.”

A relaxed vibe surrounded Underwood on Monday evening. He knows his program is the most-scrutinized sports team in the Champaign-Urbana community. Understands most Illini fans pin their hopes and dreams on what his 15-man roster can accomplish this winter.

Yet the fifth-year coach seems to welcome all of it. The 57-year-old Underwood didn’t display the fiery personality we’ve all seen from him on the sidelines Monday night. He exuded a storyteller’s wit, while also giving Illini fans snippets of details about his program. Fans of all ages seemed to hang on every word he said, sitting with rapt attention during his appearance on the stage at the Esquire. He worked the crowd like a savvy politician before and after he spoke with host Steve Kelly, N-G beat writer Scott Richey and myself.

One person who even called in to the show said Underwood is the best thing to happen to the Illini since the late Lou Henson roamed the sidelines, and he hopes Underwood stays as long as the Hall of Fame coach did during his 21 seasons in charge of the program.

Underwood responded with a statement many Illini supporters want to ring true given the upward trajectory of the program again.

“I plan on it,” Underwood said.

Underwood dished on several topics regarding his team on Monday night. Here’s a sampling of what was said during his 40-minute appearance at the Esquire:

Cockburn’s gotten ‘better’

And that’s a scary thought to opposing Big Ten coaches. The face of the program now with Ayo Dosunmu about to embark upon his rookie season with the Chicago Bulls, the 7-foot-, 285-pound Cockburn is hard to miss on the court. Or on the UI campus. Or anywhere around town.

A reigning second-team All-American, Underwood isn’t downplaying what he wants to see out of his talented big man this season.

“Kofi’s better,” Underwood said. “With the expectations, I realistically think he’s got a chance to be Big Ten Player of the Year in the preseason, an All-American and a contender for National Player of the Year honors. My approach with him is very simple: have you earned the right to live up to that? You’re not just going to go out and live off what you’ve done in the past. What you’ve done in the past has gotten you here. Now, you make yourself by how hard you work. He’s continued to do that. There should be big expectations. He had an incredible year. He was dominant. He’s improved mentally. I’m excited and glad that he’s on our team.”

Good to see you again

The March 8, 2020, game against Iowa featured a sellout crowd of 15,544 people at State Farm Center who witnessed the Illini’s thrilling 78-76 win against Fran McCaffery’s Hawkeyes.

Then, nothing. But crowds are expected back again this season at State Farm Center after the Illini played home games last season with no fans.

Underwood can’t wait.

“I go back to the Iowa game here two seasons ago. It was so electric and so dynamic. It was as good a college basketball game as there is,” Underwood said. “Last year, we still had that competitive thing with Iowa, but 45 minutes before the game, Fran and I are sitting at half-court like it was kumbaya and we were having a hell of a time, because there were no fans. It was almost like a scrimmage. It’s a very different feeling being in that place playing with nobody there when there’s a different opponent. I can’t wait to see the Orange Krush. It’s going to be special.”

They’re fresh, man

Newcomers Omar Payne and Alfonso Plummer are likely to see the court this season. Landing transfers like Payne from Florida and Plummer from Utah is what college basketball programs have to do these days.

But stacking classes of talented high school players is still vital. Underwood feels Illinois did that in landing Wisconsin’s Mr. Basketball in 6-foot-5, 200-pound guard Brandin Podziemski, a sharpshooter from Indiana in 6-7, 200-pound Luke Goode and an athletic wing in 6-7, 205-pound R.J. Melendez.

On Podziemski: “Elite scorer. Great shooter. He can play the point a little bit. He’s got tremendous ball skills and IQ. He’s probably best suited for a shooting guard position. Has great range.”

On Goode: “He’s worked really hard in the weight room. A guy that could be right there with Plummer as far as our best shooter. He can play multiple positions on the wing. Great, great competitor. I love the fact he was a high school quarterback. He’s got a little bit of a swag and toughness to him.”

On Melendez: “A guy we haven’t had. He’s a bouncy, long, springy athlete who can really shoot it. He’s a little bit like Jacob Grandison in the fact he’s an elite cutter. Great, great length.”

Drive by Ubben

Underwood encourages it to see the massive renovations ongoing at the Illinois practice facility off St. Mary’s Road in Champaign.

“It’s about as big a dirt pile as you can imagine,” Underwood said. “There’s steel up. There’s walls going on.”

Underwood said Illinois women’s basketball coach Nancy Fahey’s program is at State Farm Center this season, but the men will stay at Ubben through the end of the season, even amid the construction.

“We have had days where we’ve had to be out of there because they’ve shut power off and water off,” Underwood said. “The only thing that we really have to deal with now is a little bit of dust. They’re working really hard to keep that clean. That and the jackhammers. It’s all a sign of progress. Hopefully a year from September, we’re moving into it.”

Matt Daniels is the sports editor at The News-Gazette. He can be reached at 217-373-7422 or at mdaniels@news-gazette.com.

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