Brad Underwood will look to start Illinois’ NCAA Tournament quest on the right foot against Arkansas on Thursday in Des Moines, Iowa.
When Underwood was hired in 2017, he came to Champaign with a vision to make the NCAA tournament consistently, win championships, and make Illinois basketball relevant nationally.
Although the Illini have not secured that coveted national title, Underwood has dominated the Big Ten and secured a 20-plus win 2022-2023 season with nine new players.
But Underwood and his ball club have gone through growing pains with an 0-3 start in Big Ten play, demoralizing losses to Ohio State and Penn State (x3), and a double-digit defeat in the Braggin’ Rights game.
There were also bright spots – the emergence of Coleman Hawkins as an NBA-caliber defender, the potential of how good Ty Rodgers and Sencire Harris could be as a duo, and Illinois’ ability to remain resilient.
Resiliency might be the word that will define Illinois’ season. Let’s face it, the Illini will play in the No. 8 vs. No 9 NCAA tournament game for the first time in a decade. The opponent is Arkansas, an SEC dark horse, which Underwood admitted he knew very little about in Sunday evening’s post-selection show news conference.
Three days later, on the eve of the first non-play-in day of March Madness, Underwood is confident in his group despite going 3-3 throughout the last six games.
I love this team,” Underwood said. “We’ve got high level character guys in that locker room. It’s never easy to come together in a quick amount of time. I think the other piece of this is that you don’t let your hair down in the middle of conference. It’s a grind. Now, it’s cut it loose. It’s win or go home. This teams has the personality to handle that.”
As far as the Razorbacks are concerned, Hawkins sees them as a tough draw but beatable.
“They are a physical team,” Hawkins said. They are aggressive in the gaps trying to steal the ball. They hve a lot of guys that can score. We have to ‘guard the yard’, (guard your man).”
Illinois basketball will look to move one step closer to the Sweet 16 with a win
An Illini victory will put them in a prime position to knock off ex-Illini head coach Bill Self and the Kansas Jayhawks on Saturday, barring a Howard upset. In the Underwood era at Illinois, it has never made it past the Round of 32, losing to Loyola-Chicago in 2021 and Houston in 2022.
Tip-off against Arkansas is set for 3:30 p.m. CT Thursday on TBS in the second game of the day from Des Moines.