There’s just one day left before the start of the 2017-18 Illinois Fighting Illini men’s basketball season, which means it’s just about time to christen the Good Ship Underwood by cracking a champagne (Champaign?) bottle on her stern and seeing her off on her maiden voyage with our hearts full of hope.
The EIU scrimmage left a foul taste in many orange and blue mouths, so let’s cleanse the palate by remembering John Groce’s auspicious debut at the helm of the Fighting Illini. After wins against Colgate and St. Francis got the season underway, they headed to Hawaii for the Maui Invitational tournament and warmed up with a game at Hawaii. This game was a bit more problematic and a loss seemed imminent until DJ Richardson hit a buzzer-beating three to force overtime, where Illinois prevailed.
They took a 3-0 record to the tournament, which, as always, featured host Chaminade amidst a lineup of heavy hitters: USC, Texas, Mississippi State, Butler, Marquette and #9 North Carolina. A nervous Illini nation tuned in to the opener against USC and were treated to a blazing 57-point first half en route to a 94-64 blowout of the Trojans. Senior Brandon Paul led the way with 26 points with three others in double figures. Illinois outrebounded USC 45-22 and had serious momentum going into the second round matchup with Texas...
...Only it wasn’t Texas, because they’d been manhandled by the Chaminade Silverswords in their opener. Illinois easily dispatched the underdogs, once again getting every player on the roster some action. Walk-on Kevin Berardini broke the press with a devastating crossover, of which I’m sure there’s a gif somewhere that I cannot locate. Meanwhile, Butler had beaten Marquette and knocked off UNC in the semifinals, setting up a showdown for the title between the schools in neighboring states.
It would not be that dramatic, however, as Illinois once again cruised to victory behind a 20-point effort from Paul, but also behind a defensive effort that saw the Bulldogs hit just 7 of 28 three-point attempts. Four of the starting five had at least 14 points, while only Rotnei Clarke hit double-digits for Butler.
The red hot Fighting Illini would win their first 12 games of the season before struggling a bit in conference play, but they would rally late in the season to earn a 7 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Of course, the rest of John Groce’s tenure didn’t live up to this season, so having a hot start isn’t necessarily indicative of future success. Nevertheless, Underwood excited Illini fans by pulling off a recruiting coup Groce could only dream of with Ayo Dosunmu.
Let’s get ready for tip-off!