It’s no secret that Chicagoland is one of the best breeding grounds for high school basketball prospects in the country. With the emergence of the St. Louis area and downstate Illinois to coincide with nearby Indiana, the Midwest is a major hotbed for recruiting.
The Illini fared well with now-departed head coach John Groce in tough circumstances surrounding the team’s record, landing a top-ten national recruiting class for 2017, according to 247Sports rankings.
Illinois landed Jermiah Tilmon, the 29th nationally-ranked big man from East St. Louis and four-star guards Trent Frazier of Wellington, Florida and DaMonte Williams of Peoria, son of former fan-favorite Frank. The team also netted Javon Pickett, the seventh-overall player in the state.
For a team that had missed the tournament three years in a row with a fourth consecutive year looking imminent, it was a nice recruiting class to have, but basketball administration changes were certainly on the horizon. This dilemma brought uncertainty with the highly-touted recruiting class. Many defenders of keeping Groce predicated much of their argument around concern with being able to retain all four members of the 2017 class without having Groce and assistant Jamall Walker on board.
With the hiring of Brad Underwood from Oklahoma State and the retention of Jamall Walker, a recruiting weapon, Illinois has thwarted the notion that a revamped coaching staff couldn’t hold onto key pieces of the future. Frazier, Williams, and Pickett have each reaffirmed commitments on their personal Twitter accounts, and every notion from the Tilmon camp is that nothing about his status has changed. For the Illini, no news is good news with their prized recruit.
Underwood finally gives Illinois an identity. The Cowboys were a tough team to play against in Underwood’s first and only season in Stillwater. The program ranked number one in the country in offensive efficiency and also was responsible on the other end of the floor. Underwood has ties to the area, having served as an assistant for Western Illinois for a decade. It was important for athletic director Josh Whitman to find a coach that understands the culture of basketball in the state and knows the ceiling the program can have, which is an elite level if the program’s run from 2001-2005 showed anything. Whitman’s new $3 million annual hire already passed his first test by keeping a top-ten national class together, a unique situation for any coach to find themselves in during the first year on the job.
Illinois is going to need a strong salesman as coach. For anyone that watched Oklahoma State basketball this past season and their exciting game in the tournament versus Michigan, it’s no secret that Underwood’s system is productive and looks fun to be a part of. However, Underwood is not the only salesman and charismatic coach in the region. Archie Miller just signed a lucrative contract with Indiana. Cuonzo Martin, and East St. Louis native, left Cal for the Mizzou job and has already gotten number-one overall 2017 prospect Michael Porter Jr. and his father on board with the program. Travis Ford, the predecessor to Underwood at Oklahoma State and now head coach at Saint Louis, won the loyalty of Jordan Goodwin from Belleville, Illinois, a four-star prospect and number-two player out of Illinois for 2017. Goodwin was targeted and pursued heavily by Groce and the Illini before finishing as a finalist. Ford also landed 2018 five-star big Carte’Are Gordon from St. Louis.
As you can see, Underwood gives Illinois some stability and direction, but he has his work cut out for him. Indiana, Mizzou, and Saint Louis have made news for one reason or another, and that competitive list doesn’t include blue-blood schools such as Duke, North Carolina, Kansas, Kentucky and other schools such as Notre Dame and Michigan State in the area. Illinois needed to make a hire of Underwood’s ilk, a coach that can be a positive factor in X’s and O’s, have ties to the region, and assemble a strong staff that can recruit, and they certainly are working toward all three with future coaching staff additions happening in the near future.
Underwood’s next challenge is securing in-state prize Mark Smith from Edwardsville. Smith won Mr. Basketball in the state of Illinois and has seen a late surge in popularity. The 2017 point guard has shot up to number 92 nationally and has been given a four-star label. Smith spent part of his childhood around thirty minutes from Champaign and wears number 13 in part as an ode to former Flyin’ Illini great Kendall Gill. Underwood has reportedly told Smith he believes he can be a cog that can get the program back to the “Flyin’ Illini” days, something that should excite every Illinois fan out there.
The former Mizzou baseball commit must resist overtures from Martin and proven programs such as Kentucky and Michigan State that have conducted in-home visits with the budding prospect in order to become the fifth wheel in a strong first recruiting class for Underwood to develop.
If Underwood is able to keep Smith close to home, the Illini have done a full-180 from the John Groce era, if they already haven’t.
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