Dare to dream, Illinois fans, and dare to dream big.
That was the heart of Brad Underwood’s message to Illini nation in his introductory press conference in March 2017 as he laid out a vision for the program he inherited.
“I dream big,” Underwood said, making a grand appearance that quenched the thirst, if only temporarily, of a basketball-centric fanbase with a desperate desire to once again dream of something bigger. “And I dream bigger,” he added. “Winning a national championship is something that can happen here.”
Yet in his first two seasons in Champaign, Underwood was met with adversity he’s never dealt with as a coach. Never did he record a losing record at Stephen F. Austin, nor in his one-and-done tenure at Oklahoma State. Heck, those teams never missed an NCAA Tournament under his watch.
But the Illini sputtered to a 14-18 record in his debut season despite his past successes, and further regressed a season later, going 12-21 and finishing with a dreadful 7-13 conference record. Dreaming big — and Underwood’s dare to the Illini faithful — was to that point a dud. And the run-and-fun style of play he promised to import from Oklahoma State regularly ranked near the bottom of the league.
Last season it was a different story. Sophomore point guard Ayo Dosunmu played like the former five-star recruit who signed on with Brad Underwood. Kofi Cockburn became the most dominant freshman big in the Big Ten. They bottled something up and unleashed it, rallying from a losing campaign to finishing the season 21-10 — including wins in 12 of the last 17 games — while on track for a tournament berth.
But that was before a pandemic hit. And before Dosunmu and Cockburn declared for the draft this offseason. All that momentum felt as if it was crumbling as quickly as it was built.
But Dosunmu announced Friday night that he’s pulling out of the draft, and Cockburn then followed suit Saturday, meaning Underwood and Co. now have realistic, lofty expectations for what the Illini can be. There is positive continuity for the first time since Underwood’s been in Champaign.
On paper, this Illini duo is the best in the Big Ten. Maybe in the country. Are there two more talented inside-out combinations in college basketball? Seriously, name them. Dosunmu and Cockburn are giving off strong Devon Dotson-Udoka Azubuike vibes, circa last season — the co-stars of a 28-3 Kansas team that was primed for a No. 1 seed before the season shut down. Factor in Trent Frazier and the arrival of highly-touted recruit Adam Miller, and this team’s potential is limitless.
Illinois moved up to No. 7 in Gary Parrish’s Top 25 (And One) preseason rankings after the news. Next season looks to be Illinois’ best shot to win the league since the early days of the Bruce Weber era. And now, suddenly, Underwood’s not the only one dreaming of what might be in Champaign.
“As a kid, my dream has been to play in the NBA,” Dosunmu said Friday announcing his return. “But, first, I need that national championship.”