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Illinois Basketball: Brad Underwood is a Legend

After winning a 3rd Big Ten Championship in 4 seasons, Brad Underwood is cementing himself as an Illinois Basketball legend.



Mar 17, 2024; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Illinois Fighting Illini head coach Brad Underwood celebrates after defeating Wisconsin Badgers at Target Center. Mandatory Credit: Matt Krohn-USA TODAY Sports

Illinois Basketball hoisted their 3rd Big 10 Championship trophy in 4 years after defeating Wisconsin in Minneapolis on Sunday afternoon.

Underwood, led by Ayo Dosunmu and Kofi Cockburn, won the Big Ten Tournament in 2021. While Cockburn and the other supporting Illinois Basketball cast took home the regular season title in 2022. To be completely honest, typing all of that out feels overwhelming.

As an Illini fan in my mid-20s, my teenage years following Illinois Basketball were a dark time. Rarely an NCAA Tournament appearance, hardly competitive in the Big Ten, losing out on many recruits. And then… enter Brad Underwood. The first couple of years were shaky, no doubt. And I am sure my Twitter history after the 2018 season would tell you that I was not the biggest fan of Brad Underwood.

But, the 2019-2020 season was a special one.

The rise of your favorite team is sometimes more fun than arriving at the pinnacle. No expectations, a true surprise, and so many fond memories. As a White Sox fan too, trust me, the rise is more fun sometimes. The 2020-2021 team, though, had expectations. After not the greatest start ever, that team went on to be a 1-seed in the tournament and lifted the BTT trophy.

The 2022 Illini won the Big Ten on the last day of the season after beating Iowa at home and was a 4 seed at The Big Dance. That squad endured a lot during that year, Andre Curbelo’s mysterious head injury, and Kofi missed some time as well. This was a big achievement for Underwood to continue success after Ayo Dosumu’s departure.

The 2022-23 Illinois Basketball team was the most frustrating one of the last four seasons. Filled to the brim with transfer talent and highly-touted freshmen, those guys failed to live up to expectations on the court and off of it. They were disjointed and not a ton of fun to root for. Their season collapsed as it probably should have – with a first-round exit and no trophies.

This season, Underwood’s crew played without a point guard, and yet still transformed into one of the best offenses in the country. Defense has been an issue for these guys, but they can score with the best of them. A few epic late-game meltdowns probably held back this team from reaching its fullest potential. Still, they won a Big Ten Tournament championship and had their superstar suspended for a few weeks during the regular season.

You may have noticed something about my writing here… I’ve left out the March Madness struggles.

When many people talk about Brad Underwood there’s a “yes, but” in the conversation. Yes, Brad Underwood has brought Illinois Basketball out of the ashes, but he hasn’t made it past the second round of the tournament. This sentiment, while true, doesn’t take away Underwood’s accomplishments for me.

He’s still won 20 games in 5 straight seasons and won 3 Big Ten Championships, all while attracting the nation’s best talent-wise. Underwood has adapted to the transfer portal and NIL perhaps better than any of his peers. Kentucky poached nearly all of his assistants after the 2021 season, Ayo Dosunmu left for the NBA, Kofi Cockburn entered the Portal, and then Underwood… replaced those assistants with coaches and recruiters of the same caliber, brought Kofi back for one more year, and after Kofi left, brought in another All-American, Terrence Shannon Jr.

Underwood still has a monkey on his back, no doubt, and I am sure he feels it too, but as far as I’m concerned, you can start building that statue anytime now.

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Zach Leslie is one of original members of Armchair Illini, your go-to sources of University of Illinois news. He has sports content published on Bleacher Report, Verbal Commits and more. He is also one of the most talented videographers in Illini Nation and has published work on some of the most famous Cinema Review sites such as LetterBoxd.