When Illinois hired Brad Underwood to a six-year contract on March 18, it solidified the future of its program. Illinois tripled Underwood’s previous salary at Oklahoma State, entrusting him with bringing the Fighting Illini back to relevance after limping to a ninth-place Big Ten finish and missing the NCAA tournament for the fifth straight year. Underwood’s hiring has the Fighting Illini trending up.
That’s because, plain and simply, Underwood is an excellent coach. He has made the NCAA Tournament in all four of his years at the Division I level (three at Stephen F. Austin and one with Oklahoma State). He has never finished outside the top 70 in KenPom and helped the Cowboys become the most efficient offense in the country last season. Although Northwestern appears to be in better shape than Illinois at the moment, the Fighting Illini have long dominated the head-to-head matchup and somehow won both contests last year. Aside from being in-state Big Ten rivals, the two teams fight for recruits in a talent-rich state, so it’s worth examining the implications of the Underwood hiring on the Illinois basketball power balance.
As is common when a new head coach is hired, Illinois’ roster for 2017-18 is in flux and locking down scholarships will be Underwood’s primary goal in the next two months. All-Big Ten second teamer and leading scorer Malcolm Hill is gone to graduation, and Illinois loses two more senior starters in Maverick Morgan and Tracy Abrams. Moreover, Jeremiah Tilmon and Javon Pickett, both John Groce recruits, decommitted following the coaching change. The significant loss is Tilmon, a four-star center and the top player in Illinois. The big man hasn’t ruled out U of I, but Cuonzo Martin and his Missouri staff appear to have the inside track. Underwood retained two Groce holdovers in four-star guards Trent Frazier and Da’Monte Williams.
His first big victory was securing the commitment of Mark Smith over Kentucky and Michigan State. Northwestern, despite early interest, never really seemed to be in the running. Smith was the first Illinois Mr. Basketball in seven years to commit to his home state’s flagship school, a drought Underwood hopes he won’t endure again. He retained top recruiter Jamall Walker, who was instrumental in securing Smith’s commitment to Illinois. In addition, Underwood brought in former USF coach Orlando Antigua, who served on John Calipari’s Memphis and Kentucky staffs and earned a reputation as a strong recruiter, as well as Ron “Chin” Coleman, a former UIC assistant with strong ties to the Chicago AAU circuit. Coleman’s hiring might be the more significant move from Northwestern’s perspective, as his experience coaching the Mac Irvin Fire and knowledge of the area’s talent bodes well for Illinois recruiting success in Chicago down the line.
Even with Smith’s commitment, Illinois still has a couple scholarship spots to fill for 2017-18. With transfer target Carlton Bragg committing to Arizona State on Wednesday and Tilmon’s recommitment unlikely, expect Underwood and his staff to scour the graduate transfer market for a big man, as Illinois will need a true center to play in their new coach’s motion offense.
The new staff recently offered a host of 2018 prospects, including Mac Irvin Fire’s Ayo Dosunmu (Morgan Park) and Talen Horton-Tucker (Simeon), both of whom are top-five Illinois prospects and, more importantly, top Northwestern targets. Antigua is clearly working the Florida market as well, as he has offered five of the top nine 2018 players in the state, including five-star big man Silvio De Sousa.
Underwood brings a fast-paced offensive scheme and a winning pedigree at the Division I level, and his staff has strong recruiting connections in Chicago and nationwide. Mark Smith’s commitment indicates that Illinois perhaps has a leg up on Northwestern in terms of in-state recruitment, and Chris Collins and his staff will have to work hard to compete for local standouts like Dosunmu and Horton-Tucker.
With much of the roster in flux, Underwood faces a tall task to compete in the Big Ten in his first year. While Illinois features a talented backcourt headlined by Jalen Coleman-Lands, consistent interior scoring will be difficult for the Fighting Illini. A bottom-half Big Ten finish may be in the cards for Illinois in 2017-18, but the groundwork is laid for the program to rebound.
With both programs on the upswing, Northwestern-Illinois has the looks of a great rivalry, both on the court and in recruiting, for years to come.