As we embark on Year 7 of the Brad Underwood era it feels like we are at a crossroads for the program.
Will the Illini take the next step and compete for a national title or be a perennial middle of the pack team that isn’t built for March?
After a couple of losing seasons to start off the Underwood era, Illinois turned it around in year 3, with a 20-win season that was shortened by COVID. Since then, the Illini have won at least 20 games each season and made the NCAA Tournament. They have also won a Big Ten regular season and tourney title. And Underwood’s staff has stepped it up significantly on the recruiting side, pulling in 4/5 stars regularly.
On the other hand, it does feel like the program has underachieved in the past 3 years. Despite having consensus All-Americans in Ayo Dosunmu and Kofi Cockburn and a fairly talented roster last year, they failed to take the next step as a program and make it to the Sweet 16 and make a tourney run.
If we asked Illinois fans seven years ago if they would be okay with yearly tournament appearances, I’m sure the universal answer would have been yes.
But now that the Illini have been winning for a few seasons, it brings about the question: Are we okay with this current level of success? Or should we strive to be in the conversation with the UCONNs, Dukes, and Kansas’ of the world and compete for titles.
If the answer to the question was yes, then there is no shame in that. There are other Big Ten programs that have kept their coaches around despite what most would say are underwhelming postseason records. For example, Fran McCaffery has been at Iowa for 13 seasons and has never been to the Sweet 16, and Matt Painter is entering his 19th season at Purdue coming fresh off a loss to 16-seed.
Making any changes at head coach now may puts Illinois at risk of bottoming out again under a new regime and struggling to make the tournament. Being consistently competitive and relevant at the conference level is not something we can take for granted. One could argue that we should be grateful for what we have and not be too greedy.
On the other hand, it is somewhat frustrating to end each season thinking we could have done more.
We are a point now where the Illini have the talent to compete with any roster in the country, but there is a recurring feeling of a lack of coaching adjustments in the tourney that is holding Illinois back. At times it feels like BU’s playing style is suited best for the Big Ten and they struggle to compete with teams with more modern philosophies in non-conference play.
This issue may be exacerbated once the west coast teams join the conference next year, which will elevate the overall level of competitiveness in the conference. It may be a struggle to just make it out of the conference once these teams join if the Illini don't adapt.
So yes, while making a change may be scary, the talent, facilities, and overall program is in a much better place now where coaching at Illinois is an attractive proposition for any of the top coaches in the country.
But let’s not get to that point. Just win, baby.