Illinois won 16 conference games this season, the most in the program’s illustrious history. However, despite leading the conference in wins, the Illini will not receive any recognition from the Big Ten.
Michigan (19-3, 14-3 Big Ten) was named outright champions of the Big Ten with its .824 winning percentage. Illinois (20-6, 16-4 Big Ten) sits in second place with its .800 winning percentage, despite being 0.5 games up on Michigan in the standings.
Illini athletics director Josh Whitman released a letter to Illini nation after his plea with the Big Ten for a co-championship.
“As a result, for the first time in my memory (and, truly, maybe for the first time ever), the team that has won the most games – in this case, two more games – is not recognized with even a share of the conference championship,” Whitman wrote in his open letter. “This defies logic.”
Illini head coach Brad Underwood echoed the sentiments that Whitman expressed in his letter when he met the media Tuesday ahead of the trip to Indianapolis, specifically about the team being deserving of recognition.
“This team will always be remembered and I’ll make sure of that,” Underwood said.
Illinois men’s basketball twitter account released a video that showed the fiery passion of Brad Underwood, pushing the Illini to be better even after their win over Northwestern.
February 16, 2021: Illinois beats Northwestern, 73-66. This is Coach's postgame speech...— Illinois Basketball (@IlliniMBB) March 11, 2021
You know how the rest of the regular season went.
"Give me the hardest path because anything great doesn’t come without challenges." - Coach Underwood pic.twitter.com/fVxOodVAeV
The Illini ended the regular season winning 10 of 11 games, and five of six since that very speech. Underwood pushed his team to embrace the challenge, the gauntlet that was the Illini’s schedule down the stretch. The Illini then dominated Minnesota, handled Nebraska on Senior Night and then went on the road to beat No. 23 Wisconsin, dominate No. 2 Michigan and get past No. 7 Ohio State to end the regular season.
Somehow, Illinois finds itself with more to prove, and more to accomplish. Ayo Dosunmu was doubted as the conference’s best player, Brad Underwood was doubted as the conference’s best coach, and the team is doubted as the conference’s best team.
Still, the Illini find themselves working toward banners, rings, titles and immortality.
“We’re a great hunter,” Underwood said. “We’re great when we’re chasing something. Believe me, we’re chasing a lot right now.”
At the most, the Illini have nine games left — three in the Big Ten Tournament, six in the NCAA Tournament — and those will all take place in Indianapolis, a place the Illini traveled to on Wednesday and hope to stay in until early April.
“I want to get through the Big Ten Tournament without covid,” Underwood said. “I want to be a one-seed. Do we want to win every game? Absolutely. We’re gonna try to go continue to play the best basketball we’re gonna play.”
Despite the Illini not having made the NCAA Tournament in eight years, Brad Underwood does bring some tourney experience to the team.
Underwood took Stephen F. Austin to the tournament each year from 2014-16, and also went dancing with Oklahoma State in 2017. His teams have a 2-4 in the tourney, but he is used to the scouting and preparation of the back-to-back nature of March Madness.
“It hadn’t been that long for me now,” Underwood joked with the media of his tournament experience as opposed to the program’s. “We’ll be fine.”
The Illini are battle tested, and are ready for what they hope is a long stay in Indianapolis.
The way they packed certainly seems that way.
“We’re taking treadmills, we’re taking bicycles, we’re taking weights, we’re taking our 2K games,” Underwood said. “We’re taking a portable basketball goal that we can set up for guys to shoot free throws. We’re a team that desperately needs interaction. We’re taking a card table, so we can play cards.”