Brad Underwood turned things around quickly at Illinois. March Madness success did not immediately follow, but after adapting in recent seasons, Underwood has his team on the verge of a massive breakthrough.

When Underwood arrived in Champaign ahead of the 2017-18 season, the Illini had not been to the Big Dance since 2013. That 4-year drought would extend through Underwood’s first two seasons in Illinois before the COVID cancellation of 2020.

That year, Illinois finished 21st overall in the final AP Poll, so the Illini were going to be in the final field no matter what. Fortunately, the positive results in the regular season continued in 2020-21.

Illinois punched a 1-seed in 2021 as the B1G Tournament champs, and a shared regular-season title in 2022 earned the program a 4-seed. Unfortunately, second-round exits plagued the Illini as the growth of the transfer portal started to take a toll.

Underwood’s early success was built on elite recruiting with key pieces Kofi Cockburn and Ayo Dosunmu starring for the Illini. Then, with multiple players hitting the transfer portal out, Underwood turned his attention to the transfer portal to find star power coming into the program.

Key portal pieces and their impact

Beginning in the 2022 offseason, Underwood began his more aggressive approach to the transfer portal. No longer was he looking for role players and complementary pieces, Underwood hit the portal with difference-makers in mind.

It started with a group that included Terrence Shannon Jr., Matthew Mayer and Dain Dainja. Every player in that group averaged 9+ points per game last season while Shannon has been the leading scorer for the program 2 years running.

This past offseason, Underwood dipped back into the portal for Marcus Domask, Quincy Guerrier and Justin Harmon. Harmon has been the epitome of a strong role player, but Domask and Guerrier have started all 36 games this season entering the Sweet 16.

From those newer additions, Guerrier has averaged 9.8 points anad 6.2 rebounds while Domask has averaged 16.1 points, 5 rebounds and 4 assists and also delivered an NCAA Tournament triple-double. Underwood has also altered his playing style with those new pieces, and it has paid off.

Instead of playing a traditional frontcourt, Underwood has often played Coleman Hawkins or Dainja as the main big man on the floor at a time. Surrounding those big men, Underwood has utilized a heavy 6-wing rotation, including 4 players that shoot better than 36% from 3-point range.

The new focus on the portal and shift in playing style has resulted in the No. 1 adjusted offensive efficiency per KenPom. Now, Underwood pits that style against Iowa State in an elite Sweet 16 matchup of contrasting styles. Be sure to track the latest odds for the rest of March Madness with Tradition’s Ohio sportsbooks.

Everything from here on out will be a tough fight for every team, and Illinois is no different. The Illini could make it to the Final Four, but whether or not they do, one truth stands out from this season.

Underwood was quick to embrace and be aggressive in this era of portal movers, and he’s made it work in masterful fashion for Illinois.