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Can Brad Underwood transform Illinois from the worm to the fox?

Underwood’s early tenure trajectory still to be decided.

Illinois v Michigan State Photo by Rey Del Rio/Getty Images

“The duck swallows the worm, and the fox kills the duck, the men shoot the fox, and the devil hunts the men.” —Ken Follett, The Pillars of the Earth

Apropos of how Brad Underwood’s first Big Ten season has gone, through the ups and downs, one resounding theme has emerged: The 2017-18 Fighting Illini basketball team didn’t have enough talent to overcome the learning curve needed both systematically and culturally. And whether Illinois should be considered the worm or the duck in the aforementioned quote, it certainly wasn’t the fox or the man, and if Underwood’s going to build this program into something resembling its fans’ lofty expectations, he’ll have to attract some devil-of-a-talent upgrades.

As the season has progressed, the team can be relied on to play hard and be prepared for its opponents. This team has also slowly but surely figured out its defensive assignments and offensive opportunities, and when it’s looked rough, I can sleep easy by attributing the struggles to a lack of physical traits like size, length and athleticism. I don’t want to give the team or staff a complete pass either, but much like football, I don’t think we’ll be able to know better until the talent is elevated and older.

So speaking of talent, where is it coming from? With so much currently in flux, it’s tough to bring the future into view. Could Illinois be trading out Mark Alstork for Ayo Dosunmu and relying on familiarity with Underwood’s principles and an offseason of working hard to find additional wins next season? For anyone who’s followed Illinois basketball long enough and penciled guys like Sherron Collins, Julian Wright and Cliff Alexander into future lineups, it’s surely possible. So even though some attrition is likely, and additions are almost certain, for this exercise let us not change a thing besides the certain:


1. Trent Frazier, so. - Te’Jon Lucas, jr.

2. Ayo Dosunmu, fr. - Da’Monte Williams, so.

3. Mark Smith, so. - Aaron Jordan, sr.

4. Leron Black, sr. - Kipper Nichols, jr.

5. Michael Finke, sr. - Greg Eboigboden, so.

What type of face did you just make reading that over? Did you smile at the prospects of the backcourt taking a huge leap with Illinois’ first five-star talent since Dee Brown? Did you nod your head because you see the guys working their tails off over the summer, and running Underwood’s system with the tempo he desires? Or did you frown, because you don’t see how that combination of players makes a huge jump from what you’ve watched since November? There isn’t really a correct answer, but I’m thinking that group would take a nice jump in the Big Ten standings and still be fighting for the bubble in March.

Now let’s put on some orange-colored glasses and see what we can do with a little projection and positivity:


1. Trent Frazier, so. - Courtney Ramey, fr.

2. Ayo Dosunmu, fr. - Da’Monte Williams, so.

3. Mark Smith, so. - Tevian Jones, fr.

4. Leron Black, sr. - Kipper Nichols, fr.

5. Fifth-year transfer - Michael Finke, sr.

Now we’re talking! Pick up a couple more impact freshman, one for the backcourt and one on the wing, then plug an impact transfer into the front-court, and now we’re cooking with gas. But again, so much to be decided, and as much as I’d love to see these guys play together in orange, that scenario is not likely to unfold.

So, between the two extremes, where does that objectively leave us? After yet another wait-until-next-year season in Illini sports lore, and no closer to having concrete evidence, we’re in the all too depressing and familiar position of maintaining hope until we’re collectively paid back for our years of cosmic loyalty.

The quote I led with isn’t apropos solely because of the quote itself, but because of the novel it appears in. Since Illinois was a mainstay in the Top 25 and the NCAA Tournament, The Pillars of the Earth have tilled. Michigan State is still on top, but rag doll Purdue is also now on top. Penn State could make an NCAA Tournament with a strong finish, but Michigan has reversed its hoops fortune with one brilliant hire and improved facilities. Power, like most things, is cyclical, and depending on the recruiting and development of the next few months, the Pillars of the Big Ten could be in for an Illini shift.