Piper: Five items on Underwood's to-do list

Lead basketball reporter Derek Piper breaks down five things to accomplish for new Illini head coach Brad Underwood.

Get Jamall Walker on board

There are recruits to call, as Underwood walks into a situation with the No. 9 recruiting class in the country. But his recruiting effort starts with retaining Jamall Walker as an assistant on the new staff.

Walker is the biggest key to immediate success. He was the X-factor in the recruitment and signing of five-star East St. Louis big man Jeremiah Tilmon, who let it be known that Walker was the primary reason he was coming to Illinois.

Tilmon's family has continued to make that clear. If Walker stays, they stay.

Other programs have recognized the opportunity of playing the other side of that coin. If Walker goes, Tilmon probably follows. Walker is also plugged in with Mr. Basketball candidate Mark Smith. He's laid a strong foundation with E.J. Liddell, who is the most productive sophomore in the state.

That's a heap of talent tied to one guy. Mizzou head coach Cuonzo Martin has wasted no time in making Walker an offer -- per a source. And there are some more options on the table for him as well.

Illini athletic director Josh Whitman has communicated with Walker about his importance to the program. There's a reason he named him the interim head coach -- even over John Groce's request to coach his team through the NIT. There's a reason Whitman met with Walker after word spread that Missouri was in his ear.

Now, there is a guy to sell him on. And Walker is familiar with Underwood. Walker said on Sunday that he first met Underwood when he was 11 years old. And there's a good feeling that he thinks he's a good coach.

But good coaches don't win without talent. And boy, can Walker bring it. This is not a team in rebuild mode next year if Walker is kept.

Walker has told people that he wants to stay. His family likes it here. He made that clear on Sunday.

"If it was up to me, I think this place is special," Walker said. "My kids are raised here. Me and my wife, we've only been married five years. Champaign has been, for us, home more than any place."

"We'll see where it goes. I can't say what's going to happen."

A source said last week that there was an understanding between Walker and Whitman that they would make it work. But as with recruiting, a verbal commitment only means something if that leads to pen hitting paper.

To Walker's credit, he has leverage at this stage of the game. Whitman and Underwood must team together to complete the sell and credit Walker's value with a nice pay raise.

A source told that Illinois took a big step in that direction on Sunday with a meeting between Walker and Underwood, as a contract offer was discussed with a significant increase in Walker's salary.

Build a relationship with Mark Smith

Smith is an incredible talent. An explosive lead guard with an outside stroke and a ready-made body for the Big Ten. Or any other place in college basketball.

But Illinois needs to get him. Smith and his family have anxiously awaited the new hire. Here it is. Time to get to work.

Mizzou blew up Smith's phone last week with two calls from Martin on the day he was hired. That new staff will do what they can to not make it easy on the Illini.

But Underwood is smart. Smith told that he talked with Underwood on Saturday. He said they plan to meet in person as soon as possible.

Smith has had Champaign on the brain for a while. He told last week that he wanted to play for Groce. That was an obvious tip of the hand. Now, the Illini have to still win the game even with the shuffle.

"I need to get down there and meet and talk to whoever they hire," Smith said last week.

Underwood needs to work this one hard, and having Walker on board with him will help immensely. Walker met with Smith and his family on Thursday. But that connection to head man is important.

He is ultimately the one that determines the fit with the style of play and vision for the player's future. Underwood will need to get filled in quickly on Smith's ability and sell the vision. But the style of play fits like a glove.

Smith wants to play an uptempo style that benefits guards like him. Underwood ran the most efficient offense in the country this season with a fast pace and an emphasis on spreading the floor for his outstanding point guard, Jawun Evans. 

A source close to the situation told that Smith will cut his list to five in the next week. The current plan is to wean it down to two and then have Smith take his final two official visits.

Illinois may have been in line to get it done without all of that before Groce was fired. But Underwood can still reach the same result if all goes smoothly with the sell and the relationship.

Fill out the rest of the staff

The focus is on Walker when it comes to Underwood's new staff at Illinois, and for good reason. But there are a number of other positions that need to be filled.

Illinois has the resources to make some big-time moves. According to Monday's press release, Underwood has $850,000 to use on his three on-court assistants and $550,000 for the six support staff members.

The expectation is that Underwood will bring Lamont Evans with him to be his right-hand man. Evans was the lead assistant and recruiting coordinator at Oklahoma State last season, and he spent five previous seasons coaching with Underwood at Kansas State and South Carolina.

"He has established recruiting ties all over the country, and I consider him one of the top recruiters in the country," Underwood said of Evans when he was hired at Oklahoma State last April.

Evans' most impressive get on the recruiting trail was landing McDonald's All-American PJ Dozier at South Carolina. He also recruited Sindarius Thornwell, who is the SEC Player of the Year for the Gamecocks this season. Evans is credited with providing Frank Martin with the talent to put South Carolina basketball back on the map. And combining Evans and Walker on the same staff could have dynamite potential.

Underwood talked about Evans at his press conference on Monday.

"We're continuing to work on those conversations," he said. "I've been with Lamont a long time. I've worked side-by-side with him. I know exactly what I have with him. He's a gifted coach."

Underwood will have to figure out who his third assistant will be as well. Florida State assistant Dennis Gates is a name that has been brought up on some wish lists. Gates is a stud recruiter for Leonard Hamilton in Tallahassee. He has helped recruit the likes of Dwayne Bacon, Jonathan Isaac and Malik Beasley.

Gates has also made stops at Marquette, Cal, Northern Illinois and Nevada. He is from Chicago, and he is a former star at Whitney Young. He was named to the Chicago Public League Hall of Fame.

Underwood could use a connected presence in Chicago. He could also use a coach who can develop frontcourt players. Like Evans and Walker, Gates is a guards coach.

One intriguing name to consider is La Lumiere head coach Shane Heirman, who coached and developed Tilmon at La Lu. He has done an admirable job of turning that program into a powerhouse with loads of big-time talent. One of those players is 5-star uncommitted wing Brian Bowen. There is a strong possibility that Heirman could bring Bowen with him to the next level.

DePaul had Heirman and Bowen on campus recently. There is buzz that they are trying to make that play. Another program is said to be in that mix as well.

It might be one Illinois should consider. Heirman is a good coach with a proven ability to attract top-level players. Some in the basketball community believe that he could have success recruiting up in Chicago and elsewhere.

There appears to be interest from Heirman's side in an opportunity. And the more recruiting prowess Underwood can put around him, the more his coaching ability will be able to shine.

Ultimately, though, Underwood has to find the right fits for him on his staff. And he also needs to figure out his support staff. Will strength and conditioning coach Adam Fletcher have a shot at staying. Fletcher did a great job of developing players over the offseason and keeping them from injury during the season.

Hit on a transfer

Even if Underwood adds Smith, keeps the rest of the 2017 class intact and no current player leaves, he will still have an open scholarship for next season. And more likely than not, a second one will open up.

With that, Illinois will be expected to be in the market for an impact transfer. And one clearly comes to mind right off the bat: Oklahoma State swingman Jeffrey Carroll. As a redshirt-junior this past season, Carroll thrived in Underwood's system on his way to 17.5 points and 6.6 rebounds per game.

In his previous season under Travis Ford, Carroll averaged 8.2 points and four rebounds in nearly 25 minutes per game. But in Underwood's offense, Carroll's points production and shot efficiency skyrocketed. He went from shooting 41 percent from the field and 33.3 percent from deep to 53.7 percent and 44.4 percent respectively. And according to KenPom, he had the 13th best offensive rating in the country.

Carroll is eligible to be a fifth-year transfer this offseason. At 6-foot-6 with experience in Underwood's system, he seems like a prime candidate to take over for Malcolm Hill at the three-spot next season. Carroll would be a huge addition and a much-needed veteran presence on a team with no seniors.

The Illini could also rekindle their pursuit of Hutchinson CC four-man Shakur Juiston. Walker recruited him for Groce, and they went to see him a few times. Juiston recently cut his list down to nine schools: Iowa State, Kansas, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, Rutgers, St. Joe's, UCONN, UNLV and VCU -- according to a report by Zagsblog.

Juiston was quoted as saying he was still open to other opportunities. He has been a double-double machine at the JUCO level. He might be worth another shot, although the Illini could really use a center. 

Network and sell the area

On a national level, Illinois got great praise for its move to hire Underwood.

Underwood is very well respected in the coaching community. He comes from great coaching trees under Martin and Bob Huggins. His teams play hard. They're tough. They play an exciting brand of offense. There's a high level of accountability. And Underwood knows how to win.

That's the kind of culture you look for in a program. Those are attributes that made Underwood the guy for Whitman.

But there is still an unknown about him for many people out there. The Illini didn't bring in a household name.

Underwood will need to get out and make those connections around the state and the region. He will need to get to know high school coaches, AAU coaches, players and parents. Build those relationships, and sell his brand and the program's future.

He will get the opportunity to do the same for the fan base. Some were skeptical at first, but the more people read and research, the more they seem to like what they have. Keep that momentum rolling.

We Are DePaul Top Stories