Underwood: 'It's hard to imagine doing something 99 years'

Aug. 23—CHAMPAIGN — Illinois basketball fans filled the aptly named Illinois Ballroom on Tuesday evening at the iHotel Conference Center.

A Tuesday evening in August. On a day when the heat index easily topped 100 degrees. With a football season opener just 11 days away and basketball practices still a month-plus from even starting.

The turnout for the 99th Annual C-U Kiwanis Men's Basketball Tip Off Classic made one thing fairly clear.

Basketball is still king at Illinois. Enough so that athletic director Josh Whitman called it the "hallmark program" for the Illini given the success the past four seasons as he welcomed the fans in attendance for the preseason event.

"It's hard to imagine doing something for 99 years," Illinois coach Brad Underwood said. "For this event to last that long, I think it speaks volumes not just about the program, but all the fans and supporters that come out and do this year after year. It's really special. I hope I'm around for a lot more of them. This is what makes Illinois basketball really and truly one of the best programs in America."

The C-U Kiwanis Club and the Illinois basketball program had to reimagine its annual event in the last two years. The COVID-19 pandemic meant cancellation in 2020 and 2021. The change in the nature of the college basketball offseason — mostly players transferring out — saw what had been a postseason banquet shift into a preseason event last year.

Figuring out some way to keep it going was meaningful for Underwood.

"I'm a big fan of tradition, and you don't wipe that away," the Illinois coach said. "We had to take a hiatus — I get it — but getting that back, I did not want to be the coach that stopped the Kiwanis banquet. The job they do is incredible. It's an important piece of our program every single year."

A piece of the program that drew a sizable crowd Tuesday night. Illinois is angling for more in roughly a month, with a capacity crowd at State Farm Center the goal when the Illini host Kansas for a charity exhibition game Oct. 29. Further ticketing details are expected Friday, with all proceeds from the game going to Hawaiian wildfire relief.

"We've got to sell that place out," Underwood said.

Illinois fans have extra incentive to purchase tickets for the charity exhibition game. Fundraising to support those in Maui affected by the wildfires was the onus for the event, but Bill Self's return to Champaign was a close second.

The former Illinois coach was back in the area in 2022 for Underwood's Coaches vs. Cancer fundraiser, but hasn't actually coached at State Farm Center since it was Assembly Hall in 2003.

"You know what? In reality, it was time," Underwood said. "Bill needed to come back. We had talked about potentially playing a series. We scrimmaged them last year and were going to do it again. This occasion, or tragedy, however you want to look at it, just gave the right opportunity."

But will there be a return game to Lawrence, Kan., in Illinois' basketball future? On that, Underwood demurred.

"Considering I never won a game at Allen Fieldhouse as a player or a coach, I'm not real eager to go back in that environment either," Underwood said. "We'll see. My wife wouldn't go. I don't know. We'll see. It's one of the best basketball venues in the country, and it's very historic. There's a reason Bill's won (17) league championships. He's had really good players and is a really good coach, and that building is special."

Underwood said the decision to change what was going to be another secret scrimmage against Kansas into a public exhibition was mutually made with Self. The Jayhawks are set to play in this year's Maui Invitational, and Underwood has taken both Illinois and Oklahoma State to Hawaii for the longstanding tournament.

"It's been a prestigious event forever — as long as I can remember in college basketball," Underwood said. "It was just right and for such a great cause. An opportunity to raise a whole bunch of money adds to the bonus of Bill coming back. We need to give him 15,000 boos, and he can blame it on Hunter (Dickinson)."

The ticket sales for the charity exhibition game will be specific to that game.

"I'd ask you to remember that this is a charity event, and the whole point is to try and raise money," Whitman quipped. "We're excited to welcome everybody in and expecting a big crowd, an excited group and hopefully a fun night for everyone involved."