Before Monday night, Illinois coach Brad Underwood hadn’t watched a game in the men’s NCAA Tournament since the top-seeded Illini were eliminated in the second round by No. 8 seed Loyola.
He hasn’t watched that game either.
“I haven’t had the stomach to do it,” Underwood said Monday, noting he watched two women’s tournament games and planned to watch the men’s national championship between Gonzaga and Baylor.
Besides avoiding the pain of reliving his team’s sudden and stunning departure from the tournament, Underwood is also focused on an uncertain future with his roster and determining how to navigate an exploding transfer portal.
“I’d be lying if I had not said it’s been the majority of my last 10 days,” he said of examining which players he should pursue in the portal. “It really creates a unique scenario.”
More than 1,000 players — including Illinois guard Adam Miller — have submitted their intentions to transfer as they await a vote in April by the NCAA’s Division I Council that would allow players to transfer once without the penalty of sitting out a season.
Asked if he was surprised about the departure of Miller, a freshman starter from Morgan Park who was expected to move into a more prominent role, Underwood said, “To say I’m surprised by anything in today’s world, I’m not.”
Underwood noted this new phase of transfers will require coaches to adapt.
“I always had a philosophy I wanted to build with freshmen and develop them,” he said, pointing to the strides Ayo Dosunmu made between his freshman and junior seasons. “That’s development and maturity. I don’t know if those days exist anymore.
“I think we’re going to have to shop from the full menu, so to speak. You’re expecting 1,500-plus kids to be in the portal. That’s five per team. We have a completely different scenario for recruiting. It impacts trying to get old and stay old.”
The prospect of developing a team with a reliance on transfers is a shift for him.
“I’m wrapping my brain around 34 years of training to build one way,” Underwood said. “I remember when retention was the key word and APR (Academic Progress Rate) was the key word and helping people graduate, and now we’ve done a complete flip from all of that. It’s a different world.”
Questions abound regarding the Illini roster.
Dosunmu, a first-team All-American, is expected to enter the NBA draft.
Seniors Trent Frazier and Da’Monte Williams have the option to return as the NCAA granted all student-athletes an extra season of eligibility because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Sophomore center Kofi Cockburn considered leaving Illinois last year to enter the NBA draft, but he returned to the Illini. He is expected to test the waters to get feedback again this spring.
Underwood said he hasn’t had those discussions yet with his players. They went home to take online classes after the season concluded.
“We haven’t had any postseasons as of yet,” he said. “We’ll start having those discussions as we get back into the rest of the spring.”
Speaking to reporters for the time since the Illini’s season ended with the 71-58 loss to Loyola in Indianapolis, Underwood noted the “abruptness” of the conclusion of an otherwise successful season.
He said the Illini played “emotionally flat” and “just didn’t have it,” but he also credited the Ramblers.
The Illini (24-7, 16-4) won the Big Ten Tournament and owned the best record in the conference over the last two seasons.
“It was a fantastic year,” Underwood said. “I feel great about the future.”