CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (BVM) – Ever since Brad Underwood has arrived in Champaign, Illinois, the culture around the Fighting Illini men’s basketball program has changed. A former head coach at Stephen F. Austin and later for a year at Oklahoma State where he made four consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances, Underwood seemed poised to take Illinois to the top.
It didn’t happen overnight, as Underwood’s first two seasons in Champaign saw his teams finish below .500. The corner was finally turned during the 2019-20 season when the Illini went 21-10 and likely would have been an NCAA Tournament team had it not been canceled due to COVID-19.
However, in 2021, the team flourished, as Illinois went 24-7, won the Big Ten Conference tournament for the first time since 2005, and earned a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. In just a short time, Underwood has turned the program around entirely, part of the reason why he earned a six-year contract extension this past offseason.
“It was just four years ago that we brought Coach Underwood here with the vision he and I shared of returning Illinois Basketball to national prominence, and he has delivered,” University of Illinois Director of Athletics Josh Whitman said in a press release. “The ‘Every Day Guys’ culture he has developed defines our locker room and permeates every facet of the program. Coach’s tenants of hard work, accountability, toughness and team-first mindset are just a few of the principles he has instilled in our student-athletes. Coach, his staff and the players have relentlessly maintained their high expectations, and the results have followed, culminating with the most victories in the Big Ten Conference over the last two years, a 2021 Big Ten Tournament title, and an NCAA Tournament No. 1 seed.
“Those are significant achievements. And yet, knowing Brad as I do, he remains focused on the future, determined to elevate our program to new heights. He is as steadfast in his quest to build a championship program here at the University of Illinois as he was on March 18, 2017.”
The program continues to see success in the 2021-22 season. Currently, Illinois is ranked No.17 in the country with a 13-4 overall record, again sitting at the top of the Big Ten standings.
Over the last few years, Underwood has brought in numerous top-100 and four-star talents, highlighted by big names such as Kofi Cockburn and Ayo Dosunmu. In 2021, Underwood added three four-stars – Luke Goode, RJ Melendez and Brandin Podziemski – to the fold, further ensuring Illinois is set for the future.
In 2022, Underwood is set to do so again, adding three more big-time talents to the fold in four-stars Jayden Epps, Ty Rodgers and Sencire Harris, each of who are poised to be future stars once they suit up at the State Farm Center.
— Illinois Basketball (@IlliniMBB) November 18, 2021
The class begins with Epps, who is a top-75 player nationally currently playing at Combine Academy in North Carolina. Although originally committed to Providence, the 6-foot-1 combo guard decommitted and chose Illinois this summer over the likes of NC State, Kansas and UConn.
Originally from Suffolk, Virginia, Epps displayed elite talent while at King’s Fork High School. Although he had his junior season canceled due to the pandemic, Epps had an impressive sophomore season, averaging 26 points, six rebounds and six assists, leading his team to a state championship.
Also showing plenty of potential on the AAU circuit with Team Loaded, Epps has continued his strong play with Combine Academy this winter where he has already had multiple 30-plus point games.
“It really fit,” Underwood said about Epps on signing day. “A combo guard, great strong body … a guy that shoots the ball extremely well. He’s got a scorer’s mentality, and that doesn’t take away from his ability to play make and make others better. Wonderful, wonderful young man, extreme competitor, a gym rat, a guy who has tremendous desire and passion for winning; all those things fit exactly what we’re looking for in the prototypical guard for the way we want to play and the way we want to coach … Just fell in love with this young man as we grew to recruit him and to watch him.”
Meanwhile, Harris decided to follow Epps to Illinois last summer as well. A 6-foot-4 guard from North Canton, Ohio, Harris is a skilled player who is in his third and final year playing for St. Vincent-St. Mary in Akron.
After beginning his high school career at North Canton Hoover, Harris began playing with the Fighting Irish in 2019-20, averaging 14 points per game as a third team All-Ohio player. He again averaged over 14 points along with 4.7 rebounds, 3.1 assists and 3.2 steals as a junior, helping St. Vincent-St. Mary to an impressive 25-2 record and OHSAA state championship alongside Ohio State freshman Malaki Branham.
Harris is the top player in his class in the state of Ohio, and again has the Irish off to a fast 9-2 start this season, sitting atop the OHSAA Division II rankings according to MaxPreps.
“Sencire, very, very talented,” Underwood said about Harris on signing day. “A guy that’s got a ceiling that’s through the roof. There’s so many things that excite me about him … He has a tremendous competitive drive which will allow him to succeed. Gifted player, he can go get a shot any time he wants, extremely athletic … But a guy that’s very explosive, can get downhill and dunk on you one minute, and then he has enough ball skills to stop and go get a three. Defensively, he’s got great length, he’s got great quickness that I think he can turn into a tremendous defender.”
Just a week after Epps and Harris put pen to paper, Rodgers decided to follow suit, giving the Illini their third four-star recruit in the class.
— Illinois Basketball (@IlliniMBB) November 17, 2021
While both Epps and Harris are future stars, Rodgers may very well have the highest ceiling of them all. As the No. 53-ranked prospect in the country, the 6-foot-6 forward had plenty of DI options to choose from, and had his final list narrowed down to Alabama, Memphis, Michigan State and Illinois.
Yet, Rodgers may have had some thinking Illinois would be his ultimate college destination earlier last year. Originally from Michigan and playing his first three years of high school ball at Grand Blanc, Rodgers transferred to Thornton Township in Illinois for his senior season. He also plays AAU basketball with MeanStreets based out of Chicago.
In his junior year, Rodgers led Grand Blanc to a state championship as Michigan’s AP Division 1 Player of the Year, averaging 17.8 points, 9.4 rebounds and 3.7 assists. The forward continues to improve on his averages as a senior, and has Thornton out to a solid 10-5 start in the 2021-22 season.
While Rodgers may still have a few things to work on in his game, he is a tough and physical presence that should make an impact on the Fighting Illini from day one.
“Ty joining our family is something we are excited about,” Underwood said after Rodgers signed. “He’s been a priority for us for some time and a guy that we feel fits everything that we’re about … Ty is one of the most versatile players in this class. I think he can be one of the best two-way players in this class … He’s got a great skill set, he’s a great passer and defensively he’s just a dog. I feel great about that coming to our program.”
Rodgers’ commitment moved Illinois’ 2022 class into the top 20 nationally and the top five within the Big Ten. This despite plenty of turnover on Underwood’s staff after the 2020-21 season concluded.
As Illinois keeps winning in the present, they undoubtedly expect to continue doing so in the future. With all three Class of 2022 commits being previous state champions, Underwood is excited to be bringing in guys that are certain to continue the winning culture he has built in Champaign.
“All three of these young guys bring that winning culture and are bringing that to Champaign and the University of Illinois,” Underwood said. “We’re excited about that … We feel great about the orange and blue as we move forward into the future.”