The Illinois basketball transformation over the past year has been astonishing

Just a year ago today, the Illinois basketball team was still licking the wounds of a first-round NCAA tournament exit while watching the roster dissolve.
Mar 23, 2024; Omaha, NE, USA; Illinois Fighting Illini head coach Brad Underwood leads a team huddle
Mar 23, 2024; Omaha, NE, USA; Illinois Fighting Illini head coach Brad Underwood leads a team huddle / Dylan Widger-USA TODAY Sports

Oh, what a difference a year makes for the Illinois basketball program, as the transfer portal has changed the game completely.

March 16, 2023, the Illini enter the NCAA tournament as a No. 9 seed. The team wasn’t playing well, and it seemed like the roster just didn’t gel. That feeling turned into a reality when Illinois was ousted in the first round against No. 8 Arkansas, 73-63.

This first-round departure ended up resulting in a roster turnover. That might be the norm nowadays, but the Illini went through it in a major way after the 2023 NCAA tournament.

On March 28, 2023, one year ago today, the dominoes started to fall. At the time, Illinois had star freshman guard Jayden Epps enter the transfer portal. On top of Epps’ departure, Coleman Hawkins decided to enter his name into the NBA Draft pool.

These were the first couple of dominoes to fall during the 2023 offseason. 2022-23 leading scorer Terrence Shannon Jr. declared for the NBA Draft a couple of weeks later. Matthew Mayer aged out of college and tried his hand at the NBA ranks.

RJ Melendez and Brandon Lieb followed Epps and both entered the transfer portal. In a span of three weeks, Illinois lost five out of the top six scorers on the team and a few key pieces to a youth movement.

Brad Underwood is playing chess, not checkers, with the Illinois basketball program

Once the dust settled on who was potentially leaving the program, Brad Underwood went to work. Illinois was able to get Hawkins and Shannon back in the fold. They got advice from NBA scouts and decided to come back one more season to hone their game.

Epps, Melendez, and Lieb all remained in the transfer portal and were replaced with the likes of Marcus Domask, Quincy Guerrier, and Justin Harmon. It wasn’t just an upgrade in talent, but it was an upgrade in maturity, experience, and leadership.

And for the youth movement that was lost in the weeks following the 2023 season, Underwood brought in the Maryland Gatorade Player of the Year in 2023, Amani Hansberry. Dra Gibbs-Lawhorn and Niccolo Moretti seem like pretty talented guards as well. In 2024, we have the Illinois Gatorade Player of the Year, Morez Johnson Jr. joining the roster.

Today marks the one-year anniversary of change. Illinois was in a bad place a year ago today. Underwood stepped up to the plate and delivered for the program. The result? A Big Ten Tournament title and the first Sweet 16 berth since 2005.

Regardless of what happens on Thursday night against No. 2 Iowa State in the Sweet 16, just know that this program is in a better place than it was just 365 days ago. Underwood has been able to handle the changes with the transfer portal, and the future of the program is bright. Oh, what a difference a year makes.

Illinois basketball early 2024 transfer portal wish list. Illinois basketball early 2024 transfer portal wish list. dark. Next