Brad Underwood didn’t have to introduce himself to Durrell Robinson.
But when the first-year Oklahoma State men’s basketball coach did just that in 2016, he had an instant fan.
Underwood, of course, is the fourth-year Illini men’s basketball coach. Robinson just wrapped up his third season coaching the Danville High School boys’ basketball team he used to star on in the mid-1990s.
Robinson first met Underwood when the two were living and coaching in Oklahoma, with Robinson helping out at some Oklahoma State summer camps.
“I am not surprised by any success that comes his way,” Robinson said. “The good guys always get blessed.”
Ask around the area high school basketball scene, and the approval ratings for what Underwood’s third-ranked program has accomplished this winter are sky high.
“Coach Underwood has shown the value of playing hard, playing smart and playing together to his players and the fans,” Westville boys’ basketball coach Drew Arteaga said. “It has been great to be able to tell our players to watch Illinois basketball, not only as a fan but also as a steward of the game.”
St. Joseph-Ogden boys’ basketball coach Kiel Duval was impressed with how Illinois handled star guard Ayo Dosunmu’s three-game absence because of a broken nose and concussion. The Illini won all three games.
“You have guys that find ways to step up,” Duval said. “These guys are freshmen that are put into that role for the first time. That is a really cool thing to see and for recruits that are interested in Illinois basketball. That has to be a selling point.”
Freshmen like Andre Curbelo, the Big Ten’s Sixth Man of the Year. Mahomet-Seymour boys’ basketball coach Ryan Bosch likes seeing what the point guard brings to the court. In multiple ways.
“I’ve really enjoyed watching Coach Underwood handle a new addition like Curbelo and how much joy and anxiety he can bring a coach on almost every possession,” Bosch said. “He looks like the type of competitor you’d love to have on your team.”
Defensive effort is one aspect the high school coaches seemed to enjoy the most with these Illini. It’s expected of Jacob Grandison or Da’Monte Williams to willingly sacrifice their bodies. To have Dosunmu and Trent Frazier take the same approach is what stands out to Villa Grove/Heritage boys’ basketball coach Corey White.
“Brad always preaches about having everyday guys,” White said. “Everyday guys are guys that show up and work hard day in and day out. It doesn’t matter if you are the best player on the team or the walk-on that doesn’t receive much time. You can see that with Brad’s team as Ayo and Trent are some of the first guys on the floor for a loose ball.”
Rantoul boys’ basketball coach Ryan Parker echoed that sentiment.
“I love the way this team gets after it on the defensive end,” he said. “Adam Miller’s defense has been great to see from a freshman who was hyped as a scorer.”
Hype has gathered around the Illini since last summer. Arcola boys’ basketball coach Greg Gisinger, though, relished the photo of Williams, Grandison, Giorgi Bezhanishvili and Curbelo with their arms around one another during the March 2 win at Michigan. Much like Underwood did.
“I had never seen that before,” Gisinger said, “and to me, it showed how together they are.”
The rapport is apparent to St. Thomas More boys’ basketball coach Andrew Turner.
“Coach Underwood is not afraid to address and call out players individually on the court when they are not meeting expectations in effort and focus,” Turner said. “This is a coaching style that you don’t see that often anymore. He also, however, will be the first person to let them know when they have met those standards and he will celebrate those successes with them. When a coach can find that balance with his kids, it can create incredible trust and unity between player and coach.”
The identity these Illini have created the last four months is what Tuscola boys’ basketball coach Justin Bozarth has noticed.
“Without a doubt there’s a ton of talent on the court that catches your eye, but when you look deeper than that, you now see a team that has the exact personality of their head coach,” Bozarth said. “Illini fans are reaping the rewards.”
Rewards that Armstrong-Potomac boys’ basketball coach Wade Rogers is hopeful end with an achievement the program has never had before: national champions.
“You get the sense that this team has embraced the adversity that they have had to overcome and have used it as a motivator,” Rogers said. “This team is full of not only great athletes, but also high character men for our high school athletes to look up to. I’m ready to see where March takes them.”
Matt Daniels is the sports editor of The News-Gazette. He can be reached at 217-373-7422 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.