Welcome to “Good Morning, Illini Nation,” your daily dose of college basketball news from Illini beat writer and AP Top 25 voter Scott Richey. He’ll offer up insights every morning until practice tips off.
The last three seasons of the IHSA state basketball championships at the Assembly Hall coincided with the first three seasons of Brad Underwood’s tenure as a Western Illinois assistant under Jack Kerwin.
The 144-mile journey from Macomb to Champaign was one the now Illinois coach made annually.
Those last three seasons saw plenty of highlights. Like Rashard Griffith leading an unbeaten Chicago King to the 1993 Class AA title — the last of three all-time for the Jaguars. The next season saw Pinckneyville knock off Eureka for the Class A championship on a Ryan Bruns buzzer-beater (that still haunts this beat writer, a Hornets alum) and then the first of what would be four straight Class AA championships for Peoria Manual.
“I don’t have one specific memory, but I just remember how challenging it was and how awesome it was to see,” Underwood said about his trips to Champaign in the mid-90s. “That’s part of the footprint of what made this job so exciting to me were those memories of coming over here and trying to go see a game and struggling to get a ticket when you’re a college coach.”
Illinois is all in supporting the upcoming bid — in conjuction with Visit Champaign County — to get both the boys’ and girls’ state basketball tournaments back to Champaign. Athletic director Josh Whitman said as much last month in his media roundtable. He has Underwood’s support full support.
“Nothing better,” the Illini coach said about having the state tournament in Champaign. “I think it goes way beyond what I think and our program. I think it’s the young people of the state that are losing out. I think it’s an opportunity to play in (State Farm Center). They all know the University of Illinois.
“I’m excited about that. It’s no reflection of what’s got on in Peoria — I’ve been to both — but I’m excited. I think it could be a great thing for high school kids for years to come in this state, but we’ve got to see how that process goes. I’d be a very proud head coach to know that the best players in our state and best coaches year in and year out are stepping foot in what I think is one of the great venues in all of college basketball.”