CHAMPAIGN – Summer semester classes end today, so coach Brad Underwood will be briefly saying goodbye to his first University of Illinois basketball team.
Some time for the players to go home. Time to let bodies and minds rest. Some very welcome time away for a group of freshmen who have just had their first taste of life in a college athletics hurricane.
“Everything is new to them,” Underwood said of a freshman group that has included Edwardsville’s Mark Smith, Trent Frazier from Wellington, Fla., Da’Monte Williams from Peoria and big man Greg Eboigbodin. A fifth freshman, Matic Vesel, will be reporting later this month after playing internationally this summer.
“The coaches, the teammates, the living arrangements, what they eat and obviously, Fletch,” Underwood said, listing the new experiences and capping it with strength and conditioning coach Adam Fletcher.
But Underwood, who seems like a straight shooter answering questions, didn’t mask his excitement about where they are less than five months after he was hired.
“We had a great – not good – great summer,” he said. “I’ve been really excited and pleased with these guys and their adaptation to our culture and our system. They’ve all made themselves better.”
Underwood could have mixed feelings about the freshman class, since he had little to do with recruiting Frazier and Williams in particular. But he swears he likes them all and his comments have been consistent in that regard.
“I love this group,” he said. “Not just because they are good players. I love their personalities. They all have a charisma about them and that excites me.
“They’re fun. They have worked extremely hard. These guys are going to get thrown into it early because they’re going to have to play. So my expectation level for them is extremely high.”
The non-conference portion of the schedule was released Thursday and Underwood’s philosophy should please Illini fans who have been clamoring for more quality opponents and fewer lower-level pushovers.
Give him a year and his fingerprints will be all over the schedule.
All but three or four of the games for this season were already locked in contractually. Underwood added a game against UNLV, which will be played at the MGM Grand and returned to the State Farm Center next season.
Illinois will be playing New Mexico State at the United Center in Chicago in a game that will pay tribute to Lou Henson, who coached both schools to the Final Four. That game has been scheduled for Dec. 16.
He added Austin Peay and he’s trying to prepare for the fact that Illinois will play a pair of Big Ten games in December, whether those freshmen are ready or not.
And he’s acutely aware of the history of the Braggin’ Rights game against Missouri, which will be played Dec. 23 in St. Louis.
“I know a lot about it,” he said. “Cuonzo (Martin) is a heck of a coach, Missouri has a historic program, as we do. I look forward to that game. But that’s a long ways off.”