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Underwood: “This is bigger than a tournament”

Whitman and Underwood shared their somber thoughts Friday.

NCAA Basketball: Big Ten Tournament-Rutgers vs Michigan Thomas J. Russo-USA TODAY Sports

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Sports are generally an escape from the problems and realities of the real world, but Illinois athletic director Josh Whitman and others around the Big Ten and NCAA have decided to take those away through the rest of the school year to preserve the health and safety of student athletes and all involved as the coronavirus pandemic continues to spread across the country.

“These last 24 hours have been heartbreaking,” Whitman said in regards to the cancelation of any and all athletic events through the end of the spring season, including all spring men’s and woman’s sports. “I think it’s been a really empowering reminder of the reach and breath of sports and the great service it provides to society.”

Despite the massive impact that sports hold, the Illini will not be participating in any of those during the rest of the school year.

Whether it be games, practices, meets, competitions, workouts, team lifts or the NCAA Tournament that the Illini seemed poised to participate in for the first time since 2013, Whitman confirmed that the Illini will not be involved.

“This is bigger than sports.”

And when head coach Brad Underwood took the mic, he made his message even clearer.

“This is bigger than any tournament,” the third-year coach said.

The Illini basketball team finish its season 21-10, with a top-four finish in the Big Ten, although it won’t get its chance to see what could have been in the tournament.

“We were an NCAA tournament team,” Underwood said.

However, Underwood was proud of the foundation that his team was able to build in the 2020 season.

“This team achieved a lot. I’m extremely proud,” Underwood said. “We got back in the tournament. We got Illinois on a national stage.”

But the Illini’s head coach did not forget to mention the seniors of the Illini squad who lost their only chance to play in an NCAA tournament.

“You feel for Kipper (Nichols), Tyler (Underwood), Sammy (Samson Oladimeji), Andres Feliz. We’ll get back there (to the NCAA tournament) but those four guys won’t.

“There was a lot of raw, raw, raw emotion.”

In regard to this season, Underwood expressed his disappointment that his team will not get to hear its name called in the NCAA Tournament Selection Show, which was scheduled to be this Sunday.

“There’s not going to be a Selection Show. It’s one of the great, great emotions, hearing your name called,” Underwood said. “I don’t think there was any doubt. We weren’t a bubble team, we were in. I’m disappointed for our guys that they don’t get to hear our name.”

Not to mention, that the Illini had a chance to win it all.

“In a year where there was not a clear-cut favorite, we had a chance (to win a National Championship).”

Before the press conference concluded, Whitman mentioned how important this year— which included an bowl appearance for the football team, a tournament berth for the basketball team, another tournament appearance for the volleyball team — in getting Illinois Athletics as a whole back to where it belongs.

“It’s been the year we needed it to be,” Whitman said. “We’re happy, but not satisfied.”