After spending time this week with the new University of Illinois basketball brain trust, it’s a good time to revisit what we learned and what we think.
So in the form of a Q & A, here are some insights about head coach Brad Underwood and assistants Jamall Walker, Orlando Antigua and Ron “Chin” Coleman.
Q: Is it unusual for a new head coach to bring in three assistants, none of whom he’s worked with before?
A: Yes, it is. But one of Underwood’s top assistants at Oklahoma State, Mike Boynton, was given the head coaching job there and the other, Lamont Evans, was given the title of associate head coach and a substantial raise.
So Underwood retained Walker off John Groce’s staff and went with two coaches he felt could raise Illinois’ profile on the recruiting front in Antigua and Coleman.
But he did bring three people who had worked with him at Oklahoma State. Joey Biggs is Underwood’s director of operations. Stephen Gentry, who was with Underwood at Stephen F. Austin and Oklahoma State, will be an assistant to the head coach. And Patrick Schulte will be the video coordinator.
“One of the key components to me is that I have to like guys,” Underwood said. “We spend a lot of time together. Walking into the office every day and being around guys with personality, guys who fit the University of Illinois, guys who have the same beliefs I have, that’s extremely important.”
Q: What has Underwood seen from his staff so far?
A: Because they’ve had “live” periods where the NCAA allows coaches to evaluate talent, they’ve already been in gyms together. At an event in Indianapolis last weekend, Underwood had a chance to watch his coaches and to see how others interact with them. He likes what he’s seen.
“We group recruit because that’s ultimately where you get your success,” Underwood said. “Chin may have a guy and Jamall may know someone who can help.
“We recruit under the same premise. We’ll be honest and up front and matter-of-fact with recruits because that’s how you build relationships and recruiting is about relationships.
“All you have to do is walk into the AAU events that took place this past weekend and watch the dynamic that goes on around them and see how many people came up to them and that was very, very positive.”
Q: Underwood and his staff have sprinkled many scholarship offers out there for the 2017, 2018, 2019 and 2020 classes. What’s the strategy?
A: The strategy is to identify players who project to help Illinois win and that fit Underwood’s style of play. And then to let those players know Illinois is ready to commit to them now.
“We tried to reaffirm offers that were out there (from Groce and his staff) and I just needed to lay witness to some guys,” Underwood said. “It’s called an evaluation period for a reason.
“We tried to figure out what our needs are a couple of years down the road. We all know recruiting starts in about the ninth grade now. We’re looking at a lot of young kids and we felt positive about some kids in the 2020 class so we’ve throw some of those offers out there, too.”
Q: How does a completely new staff know exactly what fits Underwood’s style?
A: That’s a good question. They obviously talk about it and Underwood admits there’s a learning curve for the coaches, too.
“Our staff is figuring out my style and what that is and what we’re looking for in a skill set,” Underwood said. “There are some differences.”
This is a bit simple, but Underwood wants Illinois to become more athletic and is looking for players who can run, shoot and who show him an elevated level of toughness.
Q: Isn’t there a risk in offering scholarships to high school freshmen?
A: Of course, but there’s always risk in recruiting. The key is to minimize it.
“There are so many factors,” Underwood explained. “There’s the physical presence a young man may have. His maturity. You look at (high school) programs and who they compete against. You look to see how hard they play.
“Usually there are some characteristic traits that continue throughout their careers. Some of them are very skilled and talented and you know they’ll continue to get better as time goes forward. But there are some risks with young kids."