Illini coach Brad Underwood for anytime use

Illinois coach Brad Underwood applauds his team against Nebraska this season. Underwood is in the midst of a roster rebuild ahead of the spring signing period next week.

Next Wednesday looms as an important day in a most interesting period for University of Illinois basketball.

That’s the start of the spring signing period, when verbal commitments can become blood oaths as recruits file their signed national letters of intent.

If all goes as planned (and with Illinois we’re never sure), Illini basketball coach Brad Underwood will be getting at least five of those formal commitments as he charges headlong into a fairly dramatic roster rebuild.

When all is said and done, there will be more than five new players coming aboard for the 2018-19 season. The recruiting push is not yet complete with the possibility of two more players, one of whom could be a fifth-year grad transfer.

By the end of business on Tuesday, the five-player class was ranked as the 28th best in the country by 247 Sports and No 20 by Rivals.

Obviously, Illinois has quantity in its corner. But there’s quality there, too.

It’s funny, because there has been a good deal of anxiety over the departure of four players — Leron Black, Mark Smith, Michael Finke and Te’Jon Lucas.

Concern about Black’s departure makes sense. He was the team’s leading scorer and had blossomed into a difficult-to-guard shot-maker. But his impending marriage and desire to make money as a pro, along with the fact that he has earned his degree, made this opportunity too much for Black to resist.

As for the others, throughout the season critics couldn’t stop pointing out that Finke was not a good enough athlete or shooter, that Lucas was an undersized non-scorer and that Smith appeared to be a recruiting bust.

Whether those criticisms are valid isn’t the point. The point is, why the anxiety when a program that just posted a 14-18 season replaces a portion of the roster with players the coaching staff feels are an upgrade?

In guards Ayo Dosumu and Alan Griffin, forwards Tevian Jones and Giorgi Bezhanishvili and center Samba Kane, Illinois is addressing a variety of needs. This is a quintet that brings more scoring, better shooting, interior size and increased athleticism.

Tevian Jones, the player who committed Tuesday, is a perfect example. He’s nearly 6-foot-7 with a wide wing span. He can jump and shoot and should be able to use his length to become a disruptive defender.

In short, this is the kind of athletic small forward good programs have but has been absent from the Illini roster for too long.

Underwood wants to add a point guard and would love for it to be Courtney Ramey, a 4-star prep talent from Webster Groves, Mo. Many other schools share the same goal and his recruitment has been hard to read.

But Underwood has a Plan B, which the Illini program hasn’t always had in the past. That’s why junior college point guard Andrew Feliz is still on the board, too.

I was thinking about John Beilein, who had Michigan in the national championship game this week for the second time in five seasons. I was remembering the rough start he had at Michigan, a period during which he had to get the kind of players who can thrive in his system.

Through three seasons his Big Ten Conference record was 21-33 and there were plenty of doubters.

Then the system started working and Beilein and the Wolverines took off.

There’s no telling how long it will take Underwood to get rolling. Maybe it will happen this season. Maybe it will take another year for the young players to find a winning level of confidence.

Until the 2018-19 roster is complete, there’s no point in guessing. But there’s also no point in fretting about who’s not here. There’s a very good new group on the way.

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Follow Illini beat writer Mark Tupper on Twitter: @MarkTupper


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