O'Donnell: College basketball marquee swinging back toward Underwood and the Fighting Illini

  • Illinois men's basketball coach Brad Underwood (and his son, Tyler) like what they see from the Illini in a game against Purdue earlier this month in Champaign.

    Illinois men's basketball coach Brad Underwood (and his son, Tyler) like what they see from the Illini in a game against Purdue earlier this month in Champaign. Associated Press

Updated 1/15/2020 8:51 PM


Or beckon a team back.


Three weeks ago, DePaul was 12-1 and the toast of the region.

Brad Underwood and Illinois were 8-4 and as baffling on a game-to-game basis as myopic tourists playing bocce.

Now the Fighting Illini (12-5, 4-2 Big Ten) are No. 24 in the nation and the Blue Demons (12-5, 0-4 Big East) can't buy a break or a conference victory.

Still, Underwood is walking humbly with renewed fortune and looking no farther than Saturday's home blast vs. struggling Northwestern (6-10, 1-5; 4 p.m., BTN).

"The Big Ten is as good as it's been in years with a quality and depth that's astounding," Underwood told The Daily Herald.

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"You look at 12 of the league's teams in the 'kenpom' (Ken Pomeroy) Top 40 and you know you have to maintain that 'next-game' mentality throughout Big Ten play."

Since the glory echoes of the Orange Krush have begun to tease the Illini, it's not just a next-game mentality -- it's also a next-guy frame of mind.

Ayo Dosunmu, the 6-5 fleet wing from Chicago's Morgan Park, emerged once again as primary force during recent wins at Wisconsin and over visiting Rutgers.

But Underwood's confidence in his depth is growing through ranks that include boy-mountain Kofi Cockburn, sophomores Alan Griffin and Giorgi Bezhashinvili and wiki-wiki vet Trent Frazier.


Even senior Andres Feliz continues to try and expand his designated assignment as deep stabilizer.

"We're still a young team and we'll have to go through some growing pains and make some changes along the way," Underwood freely admits.

"If you go back and watch the tape from our game at Arizona during the first week of the season (a 90-69 defeat), you almost don't recognize our team."

One thing too-frequently Krushed fans would recognize is an NCAA tournament bid.

Illinois hasn't had one since 2013, its first season under former coach John Groce.

Underwood -- in year three of an $18 million deal at Champaign that runs through 2023 -- never missed during stops at Stephen F. Austin (3-for-3) and Oklahoma State (1-for-1).

So, what about it Coach?

With an eye toward the long and grinding road to March gladness, Underwood instructed a U. of I. basketball spokesman to humbly reply:

"No NCAA tourney talk on Jan. 15."

THE NEXT TIME THAT "Jeopardy James" Holzhauer visits his native Naperville, he can answer to his new nickname ... "Clemson."

The victories and style of Ken Jennings in the "Jeopardy! Greatest of All Time" matches -- a 3-1 KO -- were poised, good-natured and supremely impressive.

He tweaked his game on "Daily Doubles," going "all in" on all 7 (of 8 tries) that he nailed, maintained his stellar ground punch throughout and "J!-GOAT" was his.

Holzhauer, meanwhile, began to sulk around Match 3, especially as the precious "DDs" eluded him.

He finished 5-of-6 with the game changers; spoiler Brad Rutter flailed but blocked, going 4-of-10 over the four nights.

There is a tremendously imaginative way for Sony Pictures Television to craft one final fresh superstar showcase next autumn, but no free consult here.

Executive producer Harry Friedman and minions can contact the sports and media desk at The Daily Herald for keys to a freshened and even flashier gold mine.

STREET-BEATIN': Vegas sources are indicating that more than 70 percent of all early week action on the NFC title game is chasing Jimmy Garoppolo and San Francisco (minus-7½) over Aaron Rodgers and Green Bay. What a surprise; Danica Patrick has yet to publicly declare. ...

ESPN's coverage of LSU's mashing of Clemson in the CFP championship game was diminished by some frenzied directing. And winning QB Joe Burrow looked about as happy as a Baton Rouger who just found out his favorite hound dog was missing. ...

Jimbo Covert's selection to the Pro Football Hall of Fame was so overdue. And a reminder that of Jim Finks's 10 first-round choices during his franchise-resurrecting 1974-83 run as Bears GM, four were offensive tackles -- Dennis Lick, Ted Albrecht, Keith Van Horne and Covert. ...

Bill Carstanjen allowed staff at Churchill Downs Inc. to conduct most recent negotiations for a new horsemen's contract at Arlington Park via speaker phone from Louisville. And for the first time, at least one rather improbable rep of CDI/AP implied that the corporation may attempt to conduct a 2020 live meet without a contract. ...

Speaking of AP, the local oval no longer has crack crisis management consultant Thom Serafin on retainer and it shows. ... Adam Silver and the NBA will be using Wintrust Arena for The Celebrity Game and the All-Star practice sessions next month. All other All-Star Weekend events (Feb. 14 to 16) will be at the United Center. ...

Daily Herald do-all Bob Susnjara beat the bobtails with news that Steve Olken and Ed Sherman are leaving WSCR-670's Saturday-morning golf show. (He's also crediting Rory Spears with a report that the long-running Chicagoland Golf magazine is shutting down.) ...

And the recent flurry of interest in how area high school folks name things recalled the 1967 tempest about the selection of author John Hersey. Original favorite was retiring District 214 superintendent Harold Slichenmyer, which prompted newsman Frank Von Arx to deadpan: "Slichenmyer High? By the time the cheerleaders get done spelling the name, it'll be halftime."

• Jim O'Donnell's Sports & Media column appears Thursday and Sunday. Reach him at jimodonnelldh@yahoo.com.

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