At some point tomorrow night my mother is going to grab her wine glass, tap the side gently with a knife and then conduct her version of the Spanish Inquisition with the entire Thanksgiving table. Through pointed questioning, each family member will be forced to say what they're thankful for this year. Extracting sentiments is a time-honored tradition of hers, and usually it's an exercise of intricate brutality. You better have an answer, and it better be sweet! But, this year, Brad Underwood has thrown a real wrench into my Thanksgiving preparation.
Will it be acceptable when I hijack the yearly waterfall of compliments to my wife and bestow them on Underwood? What about the Thanksgiving hosts, my Uncle Jack and Aunt Shelley? While their dinner is assuredly going to be a marvelous exploration of standard fall delights, Thanksgiving is but once a year, and Illini basketball is there for me through the spring!
OK, maybe I'll need to add some context at the table when it's my turn to give thanks.
When I first went to Illinois, I knew very little about the tradition of Illini basketball, but shortly after meeting Deron Williams at a bus stop around IMPE, I came to the realization that Illinois had been very good of late, and it had some fantastic young recruits on campus. I dug further into the history and tradition of Illini basketball, learned about the Whiz Kids and The Flyin' Illini and adopted this passion as part of my ethos. During my time on campus the Illini won two outright Big Ten Championships and two Big Ten Tournament Championships, had a home winning streak of 33 games and were the first team in University of Illinois history to go to the NCAA Championship game.
I tell you this to make sure you understand what an incredible mark Illinois basketball left on me, but now I can't help but see a top-notch program that has been dormant in the muck and mire for a decade.
And it hurts.
Every November through March, it hurts to watch. So when I see Brad Underwood stalking the sidelines, changing the culture, changing the offensive and defensive systems to capitalize on both analytics and effort, I'm thankful. Thankful that something so important to me might finally be righted.
A decade of watching Bruce Weber's and John Groce's teams go through incompetent scoring lulls left me longing for someone of Underwood's caliber, and finally I see my team attacking the rim and taking high percentage shots at the rim and through free throws. The ball moves into different actions, more closely resembling the revolutionary wave of NBA free-flowing movement and less like my middle school of one guy dribbling and four people standing in cement watching. Confidence and calculated aggression have only been seen in bite-size doses since Dee Brown’s last jersey pop.
Underwood’s history and early results provide glimpses it might return to Champaign.
One thing I didn't mention earlier about my time on campus is that I was at that National Championship game in St. Louis. After one of the most stunning comebacks in college basketball history in the Elite 8 game against Arizona, it seemed meant to be. The 2004-2005 Fighting Illini basketball team was finally going to win the National Championship, and I was lucky enough to be there. They cruised through Louisville in the Final Four, and were one game away against a good, but not historic North Carolina team.
And then, it didn't happen.
Illinois had its worst shooting game of the year and lost in the final minutes. I looked to my left and right at the hordes of heartbroken Illini fans and saw some in tears, and I thought, "Well that's weird. Tears? Seriously?" At that point I honestly thought they'd be back in the Final Four shortly, and while it was a disappointing ending to that dream season, the program was definitely going to win one soon.
And yet, here we are, 12 years later, and they've barely sniffed the NCAA Tournament since. If I'd only known what was in store for us heartbroken Illini fans, I would not have judged the waterworks that fateful day.
And that's why on a day that we express more heartfelt gratitude than any other, I'm perfectly fine directing that slow clap at Brad Underwood. In fact, if he can rekindle the pride and swagger of my college years, he’s deserving of more. Family and friends get most of my admiration the rest of the year, but for one day, let me celebrate the man that could bring back my Illinois brethrens' basketball jubilation.