Notes: Illinois enjoying every moment of March run

Mar. 30—BOSTON — No one is having more fun at the NCAA tournament than Illinois. At least not out there for everyone to see.

Choreographed press conference exits getting more intricate by the day. Increasingly chaotic water gun battles after wins. Even a shirtless Brad Underwood, rocking goggles and sporting a super soaker at the heart of the postgame celebration.

The Illini haven't deviated from their overall goal — their sights are firmly set on winning a national championship — but they're bound and determined to have some fun along the way.

"I think it's been really fun just enjoying winning," Illinois forward Coleman Hawkins said. "The winning feeling. The attention that's been brought to us. Then the connection that we have. And then just being able to wake up and play basketball another day. So I definitely think it's been a lot of fun. We have a fun group."

★ ★ ★

Marcus Domask is enjoying every moment of his first NCAA tournament. The fifth-year guard was looking to challenge himself at the next level when he hit the transfer portal after four seasons at Southern Illinois, but he also had this type of team success in mind.

It was all part of the conversation he had last spring with Underwood. The Illinois coach's ability to sell Domask that he could achieve both in Champaign was a major selling point.

"I don't know if I thought I'd see the shirt off with the water gun. I don't think that was part of the recruiting process," Domask joked. "I mean, you know, he gets the rep of being the hard-nosed guy. But on the inside, he's really kind of soft."

"Soft?" Hawkins echoed.

"He's kind of soft on the inside," Domask added.

"I've never been called that in my life, Marcus," Underwood chimed in.

"But, yeah, part of this run is enjoying the moment," Domask finished. "You've got to have fun. We play basketball to have fun. We love the game. So enjoy the moments and be locked in when we've got to be locked in."

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Underwood is relishing the moment as much as his team.

Ripping off his shirt ahead of the celebration that ensued in the locker room after the Sweet 16 win against Iowa State was more about having dry clothes to do the postgame press conference, but it quickly became part of these Illini's postseason lore.

"If you knew the grief I caught from my two daughters last night," Underwood said. "Adam Fletcher, our strength coach, has been told he has to get busy with my ab workouts.

"We talk about winning a lot. And winning's really hard. We ask these guys to work their tail off every day. It's our moniker. Everyday guys. I don't want winning to ever, ever just be a relief. Like whew, next game. I don't want that. I want them to enjoy that moment."

Fletcher and the Illinois staff have apparently conspired to turn postgame locker room celebrations into all-out water wars. Underwood said his team is "dragging me along for an unbelievable ride."

"This makes you never want to quit coaching," Underwood continued. "It's not the winning. It's who they are. Every one of these guys is a comedian in their own right. Yet, we know when to flip the switch. They've got a 60-year-old man taking his shirt off and doing his best dad bod. So probably not very good, not very easy to look at."

Even if it turns out a shirtless Underwood is a semi-regular sight at Ubben Basketball Complex.

"We actually see him shirtless a decent amount," Domask said. "He does a lot of recovery. He gets in the (cryotherapy chamber) and the cold tub. We'll be in the training room getting treatment, and he's just walking through shirtless to go to the cryo. I guess he's confident in his body."

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Illinois returned to its team hotel across the Charles River from TD Garden around 2 a.m. Friday after its late finish against Iowa State in the Sweet 16. The Illini were back at the arena roughly 12 hours later for another round of media availability and practice.

In between?

"The emphasis was just going to bed," Illinois forward Dain Dainja said. "We ate, got a quick meal, but it was just getting sleep. Breakfast was at noon, so we were able to sleep in a little bit."

Recovery matters in quick turnaround games. Illinois has all the equipment and technology it could want on that front ... back home at Ubben. Basically three straight weeks on the road means Fletcher and newly-hired sports performance consultant Jon Sanderson, who joined the team before the Big Ten tournament, have been busy.

"It's a blessing to have Coach Jon," Illinois guard Luke Goode said. "I know he's a late addition. Not many strength coaches get hired going into the postseason, but him along with Fletch have been great.

"Fletch gives massages every day to the guys that need it. Muscle recovery is a huge thing in the quick turnaround. Coach Jon does all the stretching — pregame stretching routines. He's getting guys ready while Fletch is giving massages and giving us our supplements. It's just a perfect storm of the coaches understanding the situations and timing of everything."

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Maybe you've heard. The Big Ten hasn't had a national champion since Michigan State in 2000. Should Illinois hit its ultimate goal, that nearly quarter century-long drought would end. Until then, the questions keep coming about why the Big Ten hasn't won the Big Dance in more than two decades.

"I haven't been in the league for 25 years, but I've been here for three or four," Hawkins said. "I don't know. I just feel like the years I've been here, we've had some really good teams. The years I've been here, we've probably been the best conference in the country.

"We talked about the seedings don't matter. It's whoever the best team is that night, and I guess the Big Ten just hasn't had a team that has been able to go out and win six games in a row."

Illinois thought it would be in position to snap that streak three years ago. Underwood considered his 2020-21 team — a No. 1 seed — a national championship caliber team.

"I thought we were really good and had a bad day," the Illini coach said. "I can't speak to anybody else's successes or disappointments in the tournament, but I felt like that team had as good an opportunity as anybody.

"It's what makes this event so special is it's not a series. It's one game. If you don't play well, you go home. And that day, Loyola was better than us. Prior to that, there's been a lot of good teams. It's been the best league in the country for a long time. Very passionate, great coaches.

"But, yeah, it would be nice."

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The intersection of college basketball and gambling has never been broader, as more states open the door for sports wagering. Reports of "suspicious gambling activity" circled the Temple basketball program earlier this month.

And the NBA's investigation into Toronto Raptors big man Jontay Porter concerning specific prop bets had NCAA President Charlie Baker calling for a ban on college prop bets in states with legal sports wagering.

Consider Underwood a supporter.

"We have competitive integrity, and I think that's the one thing that we can never jeopardize," the Illinois coach said. "In the Big Ten, we've been very, very proactive in terms of putting out an injury report before games to help protect student-athletes and coaches. I'm a big fan of that. I would hate to see the day where nobody jumps for the jump ball because of a prop bet. To me, the greatness of college athletics is the competitive integrity that we have, and we should be able to keep that."

Underwood said continual education about gambling is important for college athletes. It's a constant at Illinois, which makes sense given athletic director's Josh Whitman's vehement disagreement with legal sports wagering on college athletics in the state.

"We have to do our part to educate our young people," Underwood said. "We have to continue to do everything we can to be preventive. We're not a pro franchise where we drive into buildings and drive into gated communities and nobody ever knows. We've got college kids wearing boots in dorms and being seen."

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UConn coach Dan Hurley shared similar concerns as Underwood. Hurley's biggest worry is more about the wrong people getting close to his players than his players suddenly developing a gambling problem.

"With this (name, image and likeness) opportunity, it's not like they need to bet on games in college with that insider information because they need the cash," Hurley said. "These kids now are in a position to begin investing money, taking care of family, having family travel. NIL has been great. You worry about the people around the players and how easily accessible it is. We play and practice at the XL Center not far from a window where we can see the gambling going on."