Jeremy Werner // Illini Inquirer

Piper: Recruiting sell underway for Underwood

Lead basketball reporter Derek Piper breaks down Brad Underwood's recruiting approach at Illinois and the early stages that are underway.

On Monday, the Illini introduced a very good basketball coach in Brad Underwood -- a hire that was highly-acclaimed in the basketball community.

Underwood took the podium with a message that Illinois is an elite program. That there is a commitment to winning, and that it will happen here again.

There is a belief in that. Underwood is a winner with a record to back it up. He has proven that he knows how to get the most out of his players and tactically position them to be successful. That's undeniable.

But like a jockey with victories to his name, he needs to have the horse to run in the ultra-competitive next race that is the Big Ten. Great coaches need good players. And now that Underwood has sold the fan base and media on his future, the sell is just getting started on the recruiting trail.

As a Big Ten assistant phrased it, this conference will 'eat you up' if you can't coach and recruit at a pretty high level simultaneously.

But to Underwood's benefit, he walks into a situation where there is food already set on the table. And we're not talking bread and butter. We're talking about the No. 9 recruiting class in the country signed and sealed -- for now.

His challenge is to deliver. And to even improve it further.

Underwood was asked about the 2017 signees at his introductory press conference, and how he'd go about retaining them.

"That's an ongoing process. We've reached out to each and every one of them and made contact. It's a process. It's them getting to know me, introducing myself, and as soon as possible, we will be getting in front of them and talking about what our vision is for the program, how we see them and we'll move from there," Underwood said. "Absolutely, it's very talented. It's a group we'd like to see out there on that court every day."

No kidding. Five-star center Jeremiah Tilmon -- ranked at No. 18 in the country -- is the highest ranked signee the program has had since Dee Brown. Tilmon's mom told IlliniInquirer.com that Underwood will meet with her and her son in East St. Louis on Friday.

Top-100 point guard Trent Frazier has already pledged his continued allegiance to Illinois. That is good news, while Da'Monte Williams and Javon Pickett have been more on the silent side in terms of public declaration.

But while those two do not lack importance, they pale in comparison to Mr. Basketball winner Mark Smith in regards to potential impact. Especially right away. Smith is ready-made for the next level, and the Illini are more than ready to have him.

Underwood called Smith last Saturday on the day he accepted the job. Smith told IlliniInquirer.com that he and Underwood plan to meet in person as soon as possible.

By jumping right in with recruiting, Underwood has already been faced with the competition. And the shade-throwing that comes along with it. But that's just big-boy recruiting.

Underwood has a supreme opportunity right off the bat with this class. Keeping Jamall Walker on staff puts even more power behind his swing, and he's the ultimate key with Tilmon. Walker is a piece of this process that needs to be nailed down immediately.

A source told IlliniInquirer.com on Wednesday night that is expected to happen very soon.

From there, Underwood is free to feast on the type of talent that will make this program healthy and strong again.

The Fit

Underwood has a style that is born and bred from the Bob Huggins and Frank Martin coaching tree.

It's uptempo. It's quick-hitting. It's hard-nosed.

"We like to play fast. We were one of the top teams in the country in scoring in the first seven seconds. We're a very good shooting team. There will be a certain skillset that we will recruit to," Underwood said on Monday. "We are very committed to a style of play."

Underwood expounded further on how he recruits to his fit.

"The way I like to recruit, I'll be honest, you all may care sometimes if they're four-star or five-star -- I don't. Recruiting, to me, is like beauty. It's in the eye of the beholder," he said. "It's about putting pieces of a puzzle together."

What important qualities do those pieces need to have to fit the grand scheme?

"We want skilled players. I think they fit. We've been tremendous shooting teams. I think you have to put the ball in the basket to win. And I think there's a certain level of athleticism," Underwood said. "But I do think that character wins. And I do think basketball IQ wins. In this state, you got great coaches so you get a basketball IQ level that can be better than most."

"I think guys who are 'motored up', that are competitive...Winning is something we look for. We search that out a great deal."

When you find fits, you can establish an identity and thrive in its executed form. That was an issue for the previous staff.

Illini athletic director Josh Whitman noted that the greatest indicator for future success is past performance. In the case of developing a culture and style and finding fits, that won't be an issue for this one.

The Focus

When you coach at Illinois, you don't worry about searching for talent.

There are three major hotbed areas within arms reach: Chicago, St. Louis and Indianapolis. And the state itself has been as historically fertile as any other in the country.

"There's no question that this state produces a lot of elite talent," Underwood said. "And we're the University of Illinois. Chicago, downstate, wherever -- we want the best players in this state to come to this university. So we're going to do everything we can to recruit these players."

He stressed that importance repeatedly on Monday.

"Keeping players at home is a vital part of any program's success," Underwood said. "Keeping them here is very, very important to us."

Underwood knows this state. He knows this program. There's a reason he feels Illinois is an elite place. It was the last time he resided here.

Underwood reflected on coming into the Assembly Hall when he was coaching at Western Illinois and getting crushed by Lon Kruger and Bill Self-coached teams. He knows what kind of basketball this state produces.

"This is the best high school basketball in the country," Underwood said. "It's got great coaches. It's got great talent."

And during his tenure at Western Illinois from 1992-2003, he learned how strong the pull to Illinois can be when the program is operating at a high level.

"Every young person in this state that played basketball grew up wanting to be a part of this," Underwood recalled.

So how about the sell? The style of play will certainly be attractive. The fact that Underwood is a winner and has made players better helps. And the relationship piece is also one that he will be able to grasp.

But Illinois also sells Illinois -- when presented correctly.

"You can sell tradition. That's something we do every day in recruiting. Come join this and be a part of this," Underwood said. "When you can sell that it's been done before, we're going to sell that. And that means a great deal."

Additionally, Underwood made it clear that his program's reach will not see limitations.

"I've been in this 30 years. We've got connections everywhere. Are we going to recruit in-state? Absolutely. We'd be foolish not to," Underwood said. "But if we've got a connection in D.C. or New York or Miami or L.A. -- if he's a good player and he fits what we're doing -- we're going to bring him here. It's a great place to bring him."

"You're playing in arguably the best league in the country and this [points to State Farm Center]: Are you kidding me? We can go get anybody we want."


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