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What’s first for Illinois: Final Four or CFP?

Let’s see which coach will find postseason success first.

NCAA Football: ReliaQuest Bowl-Illinois at Mississippi State
Bielema runs onto the field for a January bowl game in year 2. He’s way ahead of schedule.
Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports

Happy Sunday, Illini Nation!

Let’s do something a little bit different today. With the 2023 men’s basketball season in the rearview mirror, and portal defections underway, it’s time to refocus the spotlight inward.

Shining the light on the two highest-profile coaches - Brad Underwood and Bret Bielema - in Illinois Land will serve a dual purpose. We can not only take the focus off of another top-100 guard defecting from Champaign after his freshman year, and tilt the axis of import toward the fall and Bret Bielema’s football program, but we can reset the conversation in totality.

I won’t ignore the announced portal entry of once future-of-the-program-lead-guard Jayden Epps. This is merely an acute symptom of a chronic problem for Underwood.

Illinois v Arkansas
Epps plays his final game in Champaign in the Round 1 loss to Arkansas in the NCAA tournament. Epps’ end to his tenure included health concerns due to a concussion and shooting concerns due to miss 70% of his threes.
Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images

Last week I compared BU to the programs and coaches left in the Elite 8. I did this to objectively examine how much time a coach “needs” in order to get the program on not only the right trajectory, but in the right landing spot. As it turns out, it doesn’t take as long as the average Illinois fan would have you believe.

To highlight this point further, and put a bow on this specific issue, both coaches participating in the National Championship Game on Monday - Dan Hurley of UConn (5 years) and Brain Dutcher of San Diego State (6 years) - have been at those jobs the same amount of time Underwood has been at Illinois (6 years), or shorter.

The crux of the issue in this column will focus on two major things, and I will make a projection on the two programs after making a direct comparison of the two coaches.

The defections of Underwood, and holes left as a result of lack of longevity.

The list of players that stay with Brad Underwood after their initial season or two with him could potentially be shorter than the ones that decide to leave.

Once you see this bulleted list, you’ll be quickly reminded how and why Illinois had NINE new players in 2022-23 on their roster.

Here’s a quick list of some of the guards that decided to transfer after either their freshman or sophomore season:

  • Adam Miller - Morgan Park (#89 ESPN, 2020): After choosing Illinois over schools like Arizona, Kansas, Louisville and Mizzou, Miller started all 31 games for a team that won the Big Ten Tournament and earned a #1 seed in the NCAAT. Miller shot 34% from three and surprisingly entered the portal, choosing LSU right before Will Wade got canned for recruiting scandals.
  • Andre Curbelo - Long Island Lutheran (#44 ESPN, 2020): The enigmatic point guard won the Big Ten 6th Man of the Year award his freshman year, and was a part of the same class as Miller. His transfer was less of a surprise. Two years with Underwood: mixed results, including a concussion and migraine headaches, fused with putrid three point shooting. He’s now leaving St. John’s after one season in New York.
  • Jayden Epps - Combine Academy (#88 ESPN, 2022): Epps sat behind Skyy Clark until he decided to leave around Christmas (more below). Once inserted, Epps carved out a niche of a scoring-first point guard that showed spurts of shooting capabilities. He too suffered a concussion and stumbled to the finish line. Epps did not seem like an “Underwood guy” from the jump. Still a surprising announcement for a guard who started 11 games and average 9.5 ppg and had a PER of 12.2
  • Skyy Clark - Montverde Academy (#27 ESPN, 2022): Chose Kentucky, then did not, then chose Illinois. Then, he played only 13 games before leaving the program abruptly amid various rumors. The highest-ranked recruit of the Underwood era flamed out before conference play got rolling.
NCAA Basketball: Penn State at Illinois
Clark flushes a two-hander for a rare highlight in his swift career for Illinois.
Ron Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Chin Coleman and Orlando Antigua also left the program to join John Calipari at Kentucky. That has not gone well, as Kentucky has won a single tournament game since the pair arrived in Lexington.

If the 2023 tournament has re-taught us anything, it’s that guard play wins in February and March. It’s very difficult to win in the tournament with transfers and/or inexperienced guards.

Underwood is still not out of the woods this offseason. RJ Melendez will be a junior in the fall, and he has not yet announced that he is coming back.

The defections of Bielema, and the internal improvement that leads to longevity and success.

The most obvious defector from Memorial Stadium is the newly crowned HBC at Purdue, former Bielema DC Ryan Walters.

Walters was poached from Mizzou and spent only two years in Champaign under BB. His 2nd year defense was elite by nearly every metric, and he will likely have the first DB taken in the NFL draft in Devon Witherspoon.

Syndication: Journal-Courier
Walt fires up the fans at Mackey Arena in West Lafayette. Babyface turned heel overnight.
Alex Martin/Journal and Courier / USA TODAY NETWORK

Walters also took Kevin Kane (DC) and Corey Patterson (AHC/WR) with him.

The meteoric rise of Walters is not the only one that has taken place since Bielema signed on with Illinois.

Illinois football has a Preseason First Team AP All-American. In 2023. Not only that, Bielema has 10 PLAYERS returning that were on all-conference teams in the Big Ten, which is the most of any program.

No one knew who Devon Witherspoon or Sydney Brown were two years ago, or Quan Martin for that matter. All three will be selected in the NFL Draft and make impact on an NFL roster in the fall.

The starting running back, Chase Brown, was in contention for the Doak Walker award as the best back in the country. He will also make an NFL roster. Brown set several program records this season, and was largely unknown when Bielema took over.

Bielema established a strong network with in-state coaches immediately, and the recruiting dividends are already coming to bear. After going 8-5 in year two, Bielema is well-positioned to do even better in year 3.

Once QB Tommy DeVito’s eligibility expired, Bielema went portaling and nabbed Ole Miss QB transfer Luke Altmyer, a 4-star prospect out of Mississippi who was #188 in the class of 2021.

NCAA Football: Mississippi at Georgia Tech
As a dual-threat QB, Altmyer evades a Georgia Tech defender in 2022 playing for Ole Miss. He’s a perfect fit in OC Barry Lunney, Jr.’s system.
Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

Here’s some of Altmyer’s offers out of high school: Florida State, LSU, Mississippi State, Ole Miss and Louisville.

Which happens first: Final Four or College Football Playoff Appearance?

With the College Football Playoff (CFP) expanding to 12 teams for the 2024-25 season, this conversation becomes more realistic by the day, or even minute. I brought this up on the TCR group chat, and it was roundly dismissed as worthwhile.

Underwood cannot seem to get out of his own way long enough to develop any guard play, and the ones that stay or transfer in either do as they please or aren’t very good. I know that he has three transfers the last two years make Big Ten all-conference teams, with two of those selections being volume shooter third teamers (Matthew Mayer and Alfonso Plummer).

Terrence Shannon, Jr. is the lone obvious great transfer Underwood has pilfered.

Here is my final verdict:

Underwood seems to have his team and program in the perpetual “Prime Time Seeds” (from 7-11) purgatory, and has not been able to establish any long-term continuity. This factor alone makes it seem like a near impossibility that Underwood will right the ship in Year 7 or later to get the program to a Final Four.

Bielema has a long track record in the Big Ten of making it happen at a high level. His two seasons in Champaign bolster that confidence. With a 12-team CFP field beginning soon, the chances of a hypothetical 9-3 Illinois football squad getting in dramatically improve.

NCAA Football: Illinois at Wisconsin
Bielema has it rolling heading into Year 3. He was two poorly officiated games from wining 10 in year 2 last year.
Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

It is not out of the question that Bielema could get Illinois to nine or ten wins in in the next handful of seasons, particularly if Lunney’s offensive scheme gains traction in Year 2 this season.

Bret Bielema will lead the Fighting Illini football program to a CFP before Brad Underwood takes his basketball program to a Final Four.


Which outcome is more likely to happen?

This poll is closed

  • 9%
    Underwood takes basketball to the Final Four.
    (30 votes)
  • 58%
    Bielema takes football to the CFP.
    (179 votes)
  • 32%
    Neither program makes it.
    (99 votes)
308 votes total Vote Now

This is Illinois basketball.

This is Illinois football.