CHAMPAIGN — Before the University of Illinois basketball team launched into its 10th team practice Wednesday, first-year coach Brad Underwood conducted his first Illini media day.
His optimism is evident. And his belief in this team came bubbling forth when someone said a magazine article picked his team 12th or 13th in the 14-team Big Ten.
“I haven’t read them,” he said. “I never read them. But that’s something to go to practice with today.
“We’re a team that will play hard and when you do that 30-some nights a year, you’ll win your share of games. I think this game is better than that.”
Underwood has already said he expects Illinois to fight its way into the NCAA Tournament for the first time after a four-year absence. So with the season opener coming up Nov. 10 against Southern University, here are five questions Underwood addressed as the pace to begin the season quickens:
Q: Because Lamont Evans coached for Underwood last season at Oklahoma State, it feels like Underwood is standing barely on the outside of the FBI investigation into the bribery scandal. Will this be a lurking issue all season?
A: Well, the FBI isn’t going to let any of this drop. In fact, they may just be getting warmed up. So, yes, it’s likely to linger until they either say Underwood knew something about Evans’ dirty work, or they exonerate him as someone who knew nothing.
Underwood issued a statement when the news first broke and on Wednesday he briefly addressed it in his opening remarks. Here’s what he said:
“I know nothing other than what you have read. As expected, there’s an FBI investigation into Oklahoma State. I know what you know on that. It was expected (given) what came out a couple weeks ago.”
The good news is that Underwood has never been mentioned in the FBI reports or when Oklahoma State received a subpoena by a grand jury in New York. But since the FBI requested all kind of documents back to 2014, a scrutiny of his tenure will be included in the FBI’s broad search for facts.
Q: What has surprised Underwood the most through the team's early practices?
A: Three names keep coming up: Da’Monte Williams, Aaron Jordan and Mark Alstork.
Williams, the son of former Illini All-American Frank Williams, missed nearly all of his senior season at Peoria Manual after tearing his ACL. He missed all of the summer workouts and conditioning. But he’s been completely cleared by the medical staff and he has grabbed Underwood’s attention.
“Through practices, if I have a surprise it’s him,” Underwood said. “He has a terrific, terrific, terrific feel. He has whatever ‘it’ is, that ‘it factor.’ It’s natural, instinctive. He’s a great passer. The game doesn’t speed up for him. And he has a chance to be an elite defender.”
Jordan, now a junior, barely played under coach John Groce. Many assumed he would transfer after the coaching change. But he is back and Underwood is singing his praises.
“He’s really good. That young man is in every day shooting the basketball. He practices the shots we shoot in transition. I may let him shoot a contested shot because he can make it and he’s practiced it. I may not let other players do that.”
As for Alstork, who averaged 19 points for Wright State last season, the 6-foot-5 guard’s offense is not a surprise. But Underwood didn’t know what to expect at the other end of the floor.
“He’s an unbelievable defender,” the coach said. “That has been a big surprise. Very quick-twitch, great size. He will play a lot of positions.”
Q: Take a guess: Who might end up being this team’s regular starters?
A: There are only five returning players and just two with any size. So pencil Leron Black and Michael Finke in for sure. Te’jon Lucas has experience playing point guard and has impressed Underwood with his defensive willingness. Alstork, a fifth-year senior who has done damage at this level, is another obvious pick. And all indications are that Underwood has enough faith in freshman Mark Smith to put him in the lineup and let him learn on the fly. So those five: Black, Finke, Lucas, Alstork, Smith.
Q: What about recruiting? Illinois has missed on some recent targets and has yet to sign anyone for the 2018 class. What’s going on?
A: Big man George Conditt picked Iowa State, where his father is an alum. Wing Landers Nolley picked Georgia, then decommitted the next day.
This is a big week. Shooting guard Elias Valtonen from Finland was in the gym Wednesday. He visited Arizona State over the weekend and it’s down to those two schools.
This weekend is huge with a visit from Chicago Morgan Park’s elite guard Ayo Dosunmu, who is also down to two schools, with Wake Forest being the other.
“I’ve said it from day one, if you ask any coach in the country, ‘What’s the hardest class?,’ it’s the first one,” Underwood said. “We’re selling dreams, not reality. We’re behind in some relationships and that’s huge.
“The guys we have recruited, we’re very positive they can come in and play. But they have to think that as well. I like where we’re at.”
Q: Finally, what’s the biggest worry?
A: It’s injuries to either Black or Finke. Illinois is very short-handed when it comes to big men and experience is valuable to this team. These are two leaders in every phase — scoring, rebounding, leadership for the freshmen.
And Underwood thinks Black can have a breakout season.
“He’s an all-Big Ten caliber player,” he said. “I told him that. He’s a guy who can be a double-digit rebounder the way we play. His impact is dramatic.”