Happy Sunday, Illini Nation!
It is now March of 2023. Let’s take a look at the status of the Illini hoops program overall at the end of Year 6 for Brad Underwood, and take a look individually at the 2022-23 season. Historical perspective is added for emphasis and context.
Almost exactly six years ago, Illinois Athletics Director Josh Whitman was shown on the internet with new Illinois basketball head coach Brad Underwood. The exact date of hire was March 18, 2017.
Illini Nation brimming with confidence and foaming at the mouth, BU has a sterling record of 109-27 (.801) in three seasons at Stephen F. Austin and a lone season in Stillwater, at Oklahoma State.
Underwood was the perfect combination of analytics, winning and old school, Big Ten intensity.
The once proud Illini program had fallen on hard times, having fired Bruce Weber and John Groce in a span of a little more than five years. Both coaches came from high-level mid majors and had immediate impact on the program.
Let’s take a look at the circumstances that lead to all three being hired, and what the objective outcomes were as a result. You’ll be able to recognize a pattern of with Weber and Groce - they do well with other coaches players.
Weber came from downstate juggernaut Southern Illinois University (SIU) in Carbondale.
After a marvelous rebuild job, even getting to the Sweet 16 in 2002 winning 28 games and the Missouri Valley Conference Championship, Weber made it back-to-back Valley Championships in 2003 before heading up I-57 to Champaign when Bill Self departed for Kansas.
Despite winning the Big Ten the first two years, and going on the famous 2005 run to the Final Four in St. Louis, Weber’s overall performance at Illinois fizzled to a point of extinction.
Weber was only 46 when he was hired in 2003.
Seemingly entering his prime, Illinois thought it had a guy to lead its program for several decades. Initially the administration was right. It was not to be.
Let’s break down Weber’s Illini tenure.
- First three seasons: 130-16 (.890) overall, 39-9 (.813) in the Big Ten, (1) Sweet 16 in 2004 and (1) Final Four (2005 title game loss to UNC and Roy Williams, who is responsible for this catastrophe in the first place)
- Last six seasons: 121-85 (.587) overall, 50-56 (.471), three NCAAT appearances with two wins total
- Overall: 210-101 (.675), 89-65 (.578) in the Big Ten, fired after 2012 season
In the ‘First Three Seasons’ bullet above, it’s important to note that those rosters were built with Bill Self’s players from his three-year stint as the head man in Champaign.
After getting axed at Illinois, Weber headed west to Manhattan, Kansas, to lead the Kansas State Wildcats. Frank Martin departed for South Carolina, opening this Big 12 job.
With the roster that Martin built at KSU, Weber successfully guided his new team to a Big 12 title and a 27-8 KSU went 14-4 mark in conference play.
Weber lost in the first round as a No. 4 Seed, falling to No. 13 seed La Salle, 63-61.
Weber coached nine years at Kansas State, winning two shared Big 12 titles and making a run to the Elite 8 in 2018. He lost in the first round the other four times he made the tournament in Manhattan.
Weber’s overall numbers at Kansas State:
- 184-147 (.556) and 82-98 (.456) in the Big 12
- One Elite 8 (2018). (More context: Virginia became the first #1 Seed to lose to a #16 seed, when UMBC beat them easily. Weber beat UMBC in R32 50-43, before beating Kentucky in the Sweet 16 to advance to the Elite 8. Weber lost to #11 Seed Loyola Chicago in the regional final 78-62)
- NCAA Record: 3-5
Weber was hired by Big Ten Network as a studio analyst and color commentator. He has been pretty good, which sums up his overall coaching tenure over 24 seasons.
Weber: 497-302 (.622) with six conference championships, taking three different programs to the Sweet 16 and leading the best Illinois squad the last three-plus decades.
NCAA Tournament Round of 64 Record: 6-7
Groce was one shot away from taking upstart Ohio University to the Elite 8 in 2012.
Groce won 29 games that season after finishing third in the Mid-American Conference (MAC). Ohio lost to UNC in overtime in St. Louis in the Sweet 16, a game that I attended.
The 2010 Ohio squad won a game in NCAA Tournament as well, beating Big Ten bully Michigan and John Beilein in the first round.
Despite his overwhelming success in the NCAA Tournament, he wasn’t viewed by the media or fans as a top choice when hired in 2012.
Rumors swirled of the job being offered to several high-profile head coaches (Brad Stevens at Butler and Shaka Smart of VCU), and Groce was widely viewed as a settle hire.
Groce was hired to replace Bruce Weber at the tender age of 40.
Groce rejuvenated the roster that got Weber fired, getting to the Big Dance in 2013, beating Colorado State and losing to No. 2 seed Miami, in what has now become the infamous “Illinois Rule” game, where officials botched an out-of-bounds call so badly in the final minute, instant replay was instituted nationwide in the final two minutes of any contest.
Sadly, this was the only time Groce would make the NCAA Tournament in his five-year run as the man in Champaign.
- 95-75 (.559) and 65-41 (.411) in the Big Ten
- Best season was a 13-loss campaign in 2013
- Level-set to perfection in Toledo
Groce has gone back to the MAC, this time leading Akron, and seems to be in a perfect spot at that school and in that league. He took over a rebuild job and has a respectable 116-70 (.624) overall record and is 67-43 (.609) in conference games.
If you remove his first two “rebuild years” (a standard I will apply to Underwood later). the numbers are even better: 85-36 (.702) overall and 53-21 (.716) the last four seasons.
Despite being a D1 head coach for 15 seasons, Groce is only 51. He should get another crack at a P5 job, if he desires.
Weber’s last six years and Groce’s tenure at Illinois disappointed fans of the program. It was not only dark times, but there did not seem to be an end in sight.
NCAA Tournament Round of 64 Record: 3-1
Let’s combine the last six Weber seasons and the Groce tenure. This is not a great snapshot.
Here’s the raw numbers for those 11 seasons:
- 216-160 (.574) overall
- 87-109 (.444) in the Big Ten
- 2-4 in the NCAA Tournament
Those 11 seasons illustrate a precipitous fall of a program that had won the Big Ten title four times the previous six seasons.
Illinois fans knew that Weber was not Bill Self, but couldn’t foresee a drop of this magnitude in their wildest nightmares.
Dusty Rhodes could have come around and cut his famous “Hard Times Promo” for over a decade on any singular day and it would have played well.
Let’s come full circle to BU at Illinois. Much like his predecessors, it’s a mixed bag.
Once Groce was fired after the 2016-17 season prior to the NIT, AD Josh Whitman moved like a burglar, nabbing Underwood in the middle of the night, outta nowhere.
The first two seasons of Underwood were EVEN WORSE than anything Groce did, or Weber for that matter. Underwood was 26-39 (.400) overall and 11-27 (.289) in the Big Ten.
Had Illinois dropped below the precipice of despair, incapable of winning, regardless who coaches? This question was not unreasonable at this point. The lone year in Stillwater, Underwood lead his squad to the No. 1 KenPom OER (Offensive Efficiency Rating).
In 2016, Oklahoma State was No. 151 in OER, mostly the reason that Travis Ford got the boot, before winding up at SLU.
If this guy could make that much improvement in a single year, the sky was the limit for what he could do at Illinois over a decade. Well, maybe. We don’t know...yet.
If we apply the same standard with Groce at Akron to Underwood at Illinois, let’s remove the first two rebuild years and see how Underwood has done, since Ayo Dosunmu came to campus, followed by Kofi Cockburn a year later.
Here’s the last four seasons with Underwood:
- 88-40 (.688) overall
- 55-25 (.688) in the Big Ten
- 4* NCAA Tournaments
- 2021 Big Ten Tournament Championship and a No. 1 Seed in the NCAA Tournament
- Two Big Ten titles (2021 and 2022)
- 2-3 in the NCAA Tournament
- 3-2 in Big Ten Tournament
*2020 NCAA Tournament cancelled due to Covid. Illinois was No, 6 or No. 7 Seed
This is clearly better than anything that Weber or Groce has done at Illinois, a low bar to clear no doubt, but cleared easily nonetheless.
The only two hurdles left to clear for Underwood in Champaign:
- Win NCAA Tournament games.
- Keep elite/starting guards more than one or two years (Adam Miller, Andre Curbelo, Brandin Podziemski, Skyy Clark). Leonardo DiCaprio and Jack Nicholson could star in this movie.
The first one is obvious. Underwood needs to see the second weekend ASAP.
The main reason that Underwood & Co. have been so active in the transfer portal is obvious: it’s out of necessity. Theoretically he could have had Miller and Curbelo as juniors and WCC Co-Player of the Year Podz in his backcourt, showing current freshman Jayden Epps and Sencire Harris a thing or two.
Just as likely, neither Epps nor Harris would be on the roster.
Here is the last bit of raw data I’ll show you in this piece. Here are the last four years, in terms of 3P% for Underwood’s Illini, along with D1 ranks and Big Ten Ranks:
- 2020: 30.3% (#310) overall and 29.3% (14th in Big Ten): NCAA Cancelled
- 2021: 37.2% (#30) overall and 36.4% (3rd in Big Ten): #1 Seed
- 2022: 35.9% (#56) and 35.1% (7th in Big Ten): #4 Seed
- 2023: 30.8% (#335) and 29.1% (14th in Big Ten): #9 Seed
Regardless of who stays and/or goes in the portal, Underwood better get someone to put the ball in the hoop from beyond the arc. If you can’t shoot you can’t win...in the Big Ten or the NCAA Tournament.
We’re now in Transfer Portal Szn. Starting center Dain Dainja and the aforementioned Epps have been viewed as potential entrants into the portal this offseason.
How many wins do you expect Brad Underwood and Illinois to get in 2023-24?
This poll is closed
Underwood wants “them all back” as he stated in his postmortem of Arkansas and the 2023 season in Iowa. If they all return, Underwood is once again bullish on his 2024 squad.
“We can be one of the best teams in the country next year.” Underwood said.
Only the lunatic fringe is advocating for Underwood’s job. Another year or two just like 2023, and the fringe will become the majority.
Next year is a huge season for the Underwood Administration in Champaign.
This is Illinois basketball.