When Brad Underwood was announced as the head coach of the Illini Fighting Illini last spring, optimism was high. Underwood seemed like the person who could turn things around, improve the program’s recruiting, and finally get the Illini back to the Tourney.
And there were some legitimate reasons for excitement. Underwood was coming off a solid season at Oklahoma State and had incredible success at Stephen F. Austin prior to his time in Stillwater. He also had ties to the Illinois community and had recruited the area in the past.
Unlike some past hires, this wasn’t just hope. There were results to back it up.
But things didn’t go all that well in year one. Underwood inherited a thin roster severely lacking in experience that struggled to close out games. Ultimately, the Illini finished the season at 14-18 overall with a loss to Iowa in the 2018 Big Ten Tournament.
Simply put, it wasn’t exactly a banner year.
The saving grace for Underwood, though, had always been the seasons to come.
Underwood may not have had the pieces to win big in his initial season, but he had a proven track record of development and recruiting. Thus, most figured that success would follow in Champaign, even if not initially. After all, Illinois finished at 315th nationally in KenPom’s experience rating last season. It doesn’t take a leap to think things would improve as players got more experience under their belts.
But the beginnings of this offseason have raised some concerns.
To start, Illinois saw star forward Leron Black declare for the NBA with an agent. Black led the Illini in scoring, rebounds, and win shares last season and finished second on the roster in total minutes. Black also led the team in usage and took 29.2 percent of the team’s shots while on the floor. By just about any measure, he was the team’s best player.
Additionally, Illinois also saw multiple players transfer in Michael Finke, Te’Jon Lucas, and Mark Smith. All three played at least 40 percent of the team’s minutes last season, including Lucas, who played 20 or more minutes in each of the team’s final six games. Notably, Smith was also rated as a top 100 prospect in the 2017 recruiting class and Illinois’ top recruit.
Regardless of what you think of some of those players, that’s a lot to lose. And it doesn’t even include Mark Alstork, who finished his fifth-year last season. That’s three starters and two more key depth pieces. It’s a lot to lose for any team, especially one that wasn’t even close to making the NCAA Tournament last season.
For perspective, just look at the team’s season finale against Iowa in the Big Ten Tournament. Not only were Alstork, Black, and Lucas listed as starters, but Finke and Smith combined for 38 minutes and 19 points off the bench. Even if the Illini weren’t particularly good last season, it’s hard not to gulp at losing those kind of contributors in one offseason.
But, of course, we all know this is the nature of college basketball. Nobody returns everybody from a given season. Turnover is just the nature of the game, especially in 2018, when players are constantly moving around.
So, should Illinois fans be worried? Is it time to panic?
The easy answer is no, but before we get to why that’s the case, let’s talk about Underwood and his future at Illinois. No matter what happened in his first season, his tenure was always going to be determined by what he did on the recruiting trail. This is important to remember as we talk about next season.
As fans are well aware, the state of Illinois is absolutely loaded with talent. According to 247Sports, it had two four-stars in the 2016 class, five four-stars in the 2017 class, three in the 2018 class, and four in the 2019 class. And this doesn’t even include the plethora of elite prospects to come out of the area in the last decade or so.
There’s no way Illinois is going to land every major prospect from the state. If you think it will or can, you’re either delusional or ill-informed. But that’s still more than enough to build a nice talent base for competing in the Big Ten and nationally. Add in some recruits from the St. Louis and Indiana areas and Illinois should consistently have top 25 classes.
None of this should be revolutionary for Illini fans, but it’s important to keep in mind because it’s what will determine Underwood’s tenure with the program. While coaching is about a lot more than recruiting, it’s the starting block at Illinois. It’s why the program has such high expectations. If you want to be the head coach, you’re gonna need to recruit.
And, so far, Underwood has done just that. The 2017-’18 season was a massive disappointment, but he did a good job completing the roster with the 2017 class and is set to upgrade the talent level with his 2018 class, which is ranked 22nd nationally by 247Sports and includes the top prospect in the state of Illinois.
Underwood also returns a lot more than one might assume given those offseason departures. Trent Frazier and Da’Monte Williams return in the backcourt, Aaron Jordan and Kipper Nichols will be featured on the wing, and Illinois has depth pieces in the frontcourt. Most important, players like Frazier and Nichols have star potential.
There’s no arguing that seeing players like Black and Smith depart the program is disappointing. Both were solid contributors last season that would have helped next year as well. However, there’s still plenty to be optimistic about with regard to Illinois.
And if Underwood can keep recruiting, watch out.