Portal season in full swing

Apr. 2—CHAMPAIGN — The transfer portal opened March 18.

That put more than just preparing for a first-round NCAA tournament game against Morehead State in Omaha, Neb., on the Illinois men's basketball coaching staff's plate. The first day saw nearly 200 players officially declare their intent to transfer. More than 1,200 populate the portal to date.

That steadily growing number of transfers took up some of Brad Underwood's attention the past two weeks.

That included making recruiting phone calls to potential transfers while walking the halls of TD Garden in Boston last week amid the run-up to the Elite Eight.

The overlap between trying to extend an NCAA tournament run and not fall behind in roster building for the next season rankled the Illinois coach.

"It's the most absurd thing in the history of the sport, by the way, what we're doing in the portal while we're playing basketball," Underwood said. "It's ridiculous. I've got one coach scouting and two just living in the portal. I'm making recruiting calls up and down the hallway (Friday) while we're preparing for an Elite Eight game. Maybe that's my fault. It's reality."

The reality of the transfer portal hit Illinois on Monday. It was a full experience. Mercer transfer Jake Davis? In. Illini forward Dain Dainja? Out.

"I would like to thank all of the coaching staff for bringing me into this program with open arms," Dainja wrote in a note on social media. The 6-foot-9, 255-pound big man saw his playing time, and therefore production, dip this past season.

"It was truly an honor to be a part of this amazing group and being able to win a Big Ten championship," Dainja continued before thanking strength and conditioning coach Adam Fletcher. "Finally, I'd like to thank Illini Nation for your continued support the past couple of years. I am thankful to be getting my degree from the University of Illinois, and I will be forever grateful for the opportunity I had here. This place will forever be family to me!"

Dainja's departure gives Illinois another scholarship to fill for the 2024-25 season. That number currently stands at three given the players out of eligibility, Coleman Hawkins' announcement in the wake of the Elite Eight loss to Connecticut he'd played his final game for the Illini and Dainja's portal entry.

The roster breakdown for next season is six returning players, Davis the first of the transfer commitments and three incoming freshmen.

"We'll figure out what we need," Underwood said. "It's been great to us. The University of Illinois has benefited from the portal as much as any team in the country. We've got a lot to offer and a top offense to recruit to. We'll get after it."

Illinois' portal success stories — at least those joining the program — have started to outnumber the misses. The last three seasons have seen at least one transfer earn All-Big Ten honors. Alfonso Plummer was a Third Team pick in 2022, Terrence Shannon Jr. (First Team) and Matthew Mayer (Third Team) kept it going in 2023 and Shannon (First Team) and Marcus Domask (First Team) extended the streak in 2024. The Illini also have an Elite Eight team with a rotation heavy on transfers to sell in the portal. Not to mention a 29-win season with a Big Ten tournament title.

"I hope everyone wants to be a part of what winning is and what offense is and what we've done," Underwood said. "The success we've had over the last five years, we've been as good as anybody in the country. I think we've got a lot to offer with great facilities and great plans."

Now if Underwood could only get the way the transfer portal season begins changed. The deluge of transfers during the NCAA tournament — pulling the focus of the college basketball world at times — takes away from what Underwood called "the greatest event" college athletics has.

"I just don't know why we're doing it now," he said. "I get it, 95 percent of the country is done. It's the greatest event we have. We should relish these opportunities to capitalize on what a great event we have. I don't want to get too much involved in that, as I already have, but it's the portal and the timing stinks."