“We didn’t win every game, but boy you’d better have a program that reflects the values of Nebraskans. All-in, workers, never quit. And, let’s be honest, those are several characteristics that have not always defined the men’s basketball program this year. I think that’s fair.”
Underwood builds with freshmen and is able to keep them in the program. The Illini have just three transfers on their roster: two are graduate students and another is a junior. There isn’t the roster churn Nebraska has seen over the past three seasons.
And Illinois’ most important players are their oldest. Trent Frazier, 23 years old, scored 29 points against Nebraska. Three other rotation players are also 23. Kofi Cockburn is 22. There are just three freshmen on the entire Illinois roster.
How does that add up on the court?
Illinois already has three road wins in the Big Ten this year, or, half as many league wins as Nebraska has overall in the past two-plus seasons. The Illini have won 19 of their last 20 games against Big Ten opponents.
It took time to get there. Underwood was 14-18 in his first season at Illinois, 4-14 in the Big Ten. The next year it was 12-21 and 7-13. In 2019-20, Underwood’s third season, the Illini jumped to 21-10 and 13-7. Last year it was 24-7 and 16-4 with a Big Ten Tournament title.