Jeremy Werner // Illini Inquirer

Chain Mail: Illini coach Brad Underwood gets to work

Illini Inquirer publisher Jeremy Werner and lead basketball reporter Derek Piper trade e-mails on Brad Underwood's staff and recruiting

Jeremy Werner: So, Mr. Piper, Brad Underwood enters Week Two as Illini coach. Most fans seemed to have wanted his entire staff filled out and the top-10 class solidified (complete with Mark Smith in tow) already.

But this is a process, and Underwood seems to have attacked the process deliberately and impressively -- so far. He first had to do his media tour (Champaign on Monday, Chicago on Tuesday and St. Louis on Friday).

His first order of real business then was to retain Jamall Walker on his staff. Done. His next was to visit with all the signed prospects and Smith. Almost all done.

Simultaneously, he is lining up the rest of his staff. While he missed out on Lamont Evans, who is staying on with new Oklahoma State coach Mike Boynton, all in all it seemed like a productive week, right?

Derek Piper: It was a great week for the new head man in Champaign. He retained the greatest leftover assets from the previous tenure. And he has made headway towards making this program even better.

As you noted, it started with keeping Jamall Walker -- who impressively filled in during the NIT without his former boss and with a surrounding staff that had was left in limbo. Despite some reassuring words from Josh Whitman, Walker was also left in a state of flux. And he had outside pursuers. Some who offered him a lot of money. But Underwood honored the process of letting Walker focus on his team. And at the advisement of Whitman, he quickly learned that Walker was someone he couldn't afford to lose.

And he didn't. The agreement was done the morning after the team flew back from Orlando. Underwood was able to get Walker to buy into him and the program's future. And with that, Underwood could then take the key to the Jeremiah Tilmon recruitment down to East St. Louis and lock that thing up -- despite Cuonzo Martin and Mizzou pounding on the door.

Underwood and Walker had the in-home visit on Friday night. It all went well and all is well. Tilmon's mom told me on Friday night that her son will not be asking out of his letter of intent. The closest Mizzou will get to Tilmon is playing him in the Braggin' Rights game in December. Huge win.

That doesn't happen without Walker, who is very valuable to the immediate future and down the line. He also knows the current roster. He knows the state. He knows the program supporters. He is bigger than one player. But that one player is pretty darn big. We're talking about the highest rated Illini signee since Dee Brown -- according to And Tilmon is a great fit to Underwood's system as a mobile five-man who can run the floor in an uptempo style, set ball-screens, roll to the basket for feeds and offensive rebounds. Defensively, he will aid Underwood in being able to be aggressive on the perimeter with Tilmon's ability to help and recover, and block shots.

And then there is Mr. Basketball winner Mark Smith. The state's stud who has been waiting to meet the new head coach face-to-face. That happened on Sunday night, as Underwood and Walker conducted an in-home visit. It was a successful one. I was told by the Smith camp that it was "really impressive". The visit didn't shut this thing down, but it was a strong step in the right direction. And Walker was there -- and will continue to be there -- to be a nice bridge for the relationship to continue to grow.

Smith thinks very highly of Illinois. He's made that very clear. He openly told me that he wanted to play for John Groce. That tells you where the Illini sat a few weeks ago. Underwood will be tested to hold that position. He's in the door now, though, and it appears to be Illinois' driver seat to lose. And if they don't, they'll get a future stud who is ready-made to be impactful.

Werner: Of course, four-star point guard Trent Frazier reaffirmed his commitment to Illinois last week. And why wouldn't he? The kid seems to really fallen for Illinois, but it also probably provides his best opportunity. The dynamic, sharp-shooting guard saw what Jawun Evans did in Underwood's offense. 

Also, this last week has reaffirmed my view that athletics director Josh Whitman handled the search process extremely well. He told me that he has a tiered system, not a numbered order others have. That numbered system really hurt Mike Thomas, who waited for his targets to become available and then went down his list from there. That creates a prolonged process, which becomes embarrassing if you publicly whiff like Thomas did.

So Whitman had other Tier 1 targets, including Monty Williams, Tony Bennett, Gregg Marshall and Archie Miller. But Williams wants to wait for an NBA job. Bennett likely will stay at Virginia with a raise. Marshall is comfortable at Wichita State, especially with a likely move to the American Athletic Conference and more backing from the Koch family. Meanwhile, Miller is at Indiana, which was on his short list of schools for which he'd leave Dayton. Whitman could have chased Bennett and Miller, but he read that those guys didn't have as much interest in Illinois as he had in them.

When he found a Tier 1 candidate who reciprocated his level of interest, he acted quickly. Underwood's agent, Bret Just, knew Illinois was on Underwood's dream list. Whitman knew Oklahoma State AD Mike Holder was cheap and low-balled Underwood. The two sides acted quickly and decisively. 

I haven't talked to anyone in the industry who doesn't think Illinois hired a great coach. If Whitman had delayed despite Underwood's interest, he may have missed his chance to hire him and he could be working onto his Tier 2 list.

By the way, there are many reports that Illinois offered Cuonzo Martin before Martin took the Missouri job. Here's what I can tell you. Whitman had discussions with Martin's team. Those discussions reached contract discussions. Numbers and years were exchanged (the same six-year, $18 million Illinois gave Underwood). But when Martin was ready to close a deal, Illinois was not. For what reason, I'm not sure but we do know that Whitman thought Martin had risk. Also, Martin accepted the job hours before Whitman made contact with Underwood's agent. We may never know if there actually was a final offer on the table (Martin's people suggest yes, Illinois says no). In the end, it doesn't really matter. Illinois got a really good coach, and Mizzou got a good fit. Oh, and Martin turned Illinois' interest into an extra year on his Mizzou contract.

DP, we've seen the crowds at the Braggin' Rights Game the last few years. This offseason -- Martin landing Michael Porter Jr. and going after Illini signees and targets -- will only add to a festive atmosphere. 

How do you think the hires at Mizzou and Indiana will impact the Illini? I know you probably shed a single tear when you heard the Archie news.

Piper: Braggin' Rights has officially been rekindled. And that's exciting. It's good for both programs to have restored meaning in that matchup. New coaches bring new hope and buy-in by the fan base. And the recruiting crossover that has already occurred will stir that one up nicely.

Rivalry is great. It's one of the special things about college sports. And it's something that you don't really get out of the pro game on the basketball side anymore. I think Illini fans are ready to feel some of that, which has been missing. And that happens with a lack of inconsistent relevance.

I think the new hires bring fresh breath and really add an interesting dynamic in the heart of basketball country. At the same time, all three coaching staffs will work to build relationships with targets, high school coaches and AAU programs in their home state and throughout the Midwest. There will be an intense focus on what early moves (recruiting additions, coaching staff assembly, roster attrition, etc.) the programs can make to position themselves for the future.

Illinois, Indiana and Mizzou all made very good hires for each situation. I'm a huge Archie Miller fan. I think he is a stud in the making and it was time for him to make the jump up to a big-boy job. Mission accomplished. And Indiana gets a coach who is very likeable and a very good basketball mind. He will recruit well, and I think he can help to win that state back. It was ultimately a talent pool that escaped Tom Crean at an inopportune time.

And for a program that has been so talent-starved at Missouri, Cuonzo Martin will come in and 'get dudes' -- as we say. That was his greatest value when measuring his candidacy for the Illinois job. And he will be able to do some of those same things at Mizzou. We've seen it already. By hiring Michael Porter Sr. as an assistant, he has Michael Porter Jr. (No. 2 projected pick in 2018 by Draft Express) lined up to be in Columbia next year. And Jontay Porter (top-50 2018 forward) won't be far behind.

How do these coaching moves impact Illinois? Well, there Missouri sits as a real player to get Mark Smith. That wasn't happening if Kim Anderson was sticking around. As I mentioned, Mizzou tried to make a run at Walker and Tilmon. And they will still try at Tilmon through backchannels. The Illini have a pest in Travis Ford at SLU, who stole a very prized possession in Jordan Goodwin. Ford already has Carte'Are Gordon committed in the 2018 class too. Martin will be another player in that St. Louis area who will not make things easy on Illinois.

And we already know the importance of that region. It has been significantly richer with talent than Chicago of late.

As for Indiana, you will see less direct competition on the recruiting trail -- at least right off the bat. But there they will be to fight you in that battle to climb up the Big Ten pecking order. Another great coach in the league. Illinois likes to think of itself as a sleeping giant. I can buy that. Indiana isn't exactly sleeping -- maybe by that fan base's standards -- but Miller is capable of awakening that giant of a program.

Just more competition for the Illini to get back to where they want to go: A spot of competing for and winning Big Ten championships.

Werner: Illinois does need to develop those relationships. Walker obviously helps in the St. Louis metro area and throughout the Midwest. He at least knows the lay of the land and should help ease the transition for Underwood by advising him on where he needs to be and who he needs to talk to.

But Underwood needs two more assistants who can help in that arena. Losing the battle for Lamont Evans hurts. Mike Holder certainly didn't want Underwood to escape with his staff, and some think hiring Mike Boynton and throwing a bunch of money at Evans to keep him as associate head coach was in part due to spite. Regardless, Underwood loses a top assistant he thought he had in the bag a week ago. Evans was an ace recruiter under Frank Martin at South Carolina, landing Sindarius Thornwell and P.J. Dozier -- who have had huge seasons and months to lead the Gamecocks to the Final Four. Most think Evans would've done extremely well in Chicago and help Illinois elsewhere. Plus, Evans knew Underwood's system extremely well.

Underwood should attract some intriguing names and he wants experience, which is understandable. Illinois is a big, complicated job. He should have his guys in place after the Final Four.

You hope one assistant has connections to Chicago. Experience navigating those waters is important. Otherwise you can drown up there no matter how hard you paddle. But I also think we don't talk enough about developing deeper recruiting ties elsewhere. The state of Illinois is deep enough to provide Illinois with a talented, deep roster. But there are down cycles in state, and Illinois needs to be able to go elsewhere to find players -- maybe players who fit better. Groce's staff never was able to really tap into this, missing on most top targets from Canada and Ohio.

Bill Self started to develop a Texas pipeline with assistant Billy Gillispie, who landed Kyle Wilson and a guy named Deron Williams. In addition to his Peoria pipeline, Lon Kruger landed players from Arkansas, Memphis and Missouri. Bruce Weber's best recruited team (2008-09) had starters from Virginia (Mike Davis) and Baltimore (Chester Frazier). Two of John Groce's best recruits came from out of state (Jalen Coleman-Lands and Leron Black). We focus so much on in-state kids, and it makes sense. There is a lot of talent here and some loyalty, but there are kids from other states who want to attend and play for Illinois too. And they may fit the Illini better.

What are your preferred traits/ties for the two Illini assistants and which candidates do you like most? (Guys, I bet $200 he says Shane Heirman)

Piper: That's a good bet because I would roll the dice with Heirman. Does he have experience being an assistant in college? No. But you talk about having recruiting connections in different places. Heirman has recruited everywhere for La Lumiere to turn into a powerhouse program.

He coached Jeremiah Tilmon last season, and developed him nicely. He got McDonald's All-American Jaren Jackson Jr. from Indiana. He got Jordan Poole from Wisconsin. He got Jacob Epperson from Australia. Tyger Campbell from Nashville. And, oh by the way, he has fellow McDonald's All-American Brian Bowen from Michigan on his roster. And Bowen is uncommitted.

All three assistants need to have recruiting capabilities. But you need one more -- other than Jamall -- who can really go out there and get talent. Heirman is very intriguing in this regard. He has talked with Bowen's family. Illinois isn't in Bowen's top five, but Bowen has had a top five for months and hasn't made a move. Bowen and Heirman visited DePaul a few weeks ago, and they're not in the top five. But they're one of the spots interested in hiring Heirman.

I would have that interest too. Potentially adding Bowen to the class you have, and then Mark Smith. Are you kidding me? That's probably the second best class in the country. That's pumping your program full of juice right away, and you can build from there.

Heirman is a risk. But he also has high upside. He's built relationships. He grinds. He makes things happen. And when talking about him as a candidate, he doesn't get enough credit for being a good coach. He has a bright future in the business, and he wants an opportunity at Illinois. Not giving him a legit look would be a mistake, in my opinion.

Overall, I think recruiting prowess should be a very high priority. You have the coach. He needs the players. Yes, player development should be important. Yes, they need to fit the program. Underwood needs to be able to trust them and feel comfortable with them.

But I'm glad you mentioned Chicago. Would an assistant coach with Chicago ties help you up there? Sure. It's a quality to seek. But I wouldn't force it. Paris Parham was from there. Coached in the Public League. He was buddy-buddy with the Irvins. What did it get Illinois during Groce's tenure? Miss on Jalen Brunson. Miss on Marcus Lovett. Miss on Charlie Moore. Groce signed one guy from the Mac Irvin Fire program -- Da'Monte Williams -- and he won't get to coach him. And Williams isn't even from Chicago.

Like any place with pride, Chicago sticks up for their own. The big high school and AAU coaches will say Illinois needs to hire 'a Chicago guy'. Truth be told, it's not that simple. And Chicago isn't exactly loaded with premium-level talent that is available at the moment -- outside of Ayo Dosunmu. You still have to recruit the area, and you have reason to do so. There are good players and more will emerge. 

But you don't have to be from there to win some of those battles. And you don't have to win a bunch of Chicago battles in order to win games. But if you do win games, that helps you up there.

Former player as an assistant? Pass. Different story if Dee Brown's situation was different. Roger Powell doesn't seem keen on leaving Bryce Drew's staff. Outside of that, I wouldn't bite on the other options. The community of former players has pushed hard for it. But the right guy just isn't there. Support staff? Absolutely. More former players need to be around this program. That doesn't mean one deserves to be an assistant coach.

At the outset, I would have told you to get Walker, Evans and Heirman. I'm not married to one particular guy to insert instead of Evans. I do know Illinois plans to aim high, though, and they should with the highest assistant payroll in the Big Ten.

Werner: There definitely are some intriguing names out there, some of which we've discussed on the premium board. But Underwood should have some great options given his reputation, the salaries he can offer and a great opportunity at a Big Ten program. He's already attracting many of the top support staffers from Oklahoma State. While Evans was a setback, it's definitely not crushing by any means. There are plenty of great assistants and recruiters available.

We're barely into Week 2, but the foundation of the Underwood era is getting set. These are important first steps. Solidifying a strong recruiting class -- with the assist of Walker and the previous staff -- would make this far less of a long-term rebuild than Groce inherited. With the right coaching (the head guy seems pretty good) and the right recruiting staff supplying the staff with 2018-and-beyond talent, Underwood could have a pretty good team in a season or two.

Once this class is set and the staff is set, then Underwood can get working on the transfer market, which already is filling up with options. We might even see some transfers out of Champaign. Illinois should be in the market for a fifth-year post who can rebound and defend to help complement Jeremiah Tilmon and Michael Finke (who you'd rather play the four). The Illini also could be in the market for a proven wing scorer given that it lost three of its top four scorers to graduation.

And then, Underwood finally can get to what he's brought here to do. You know, coach his players.

Offseason? Not around here.

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