Werner's Whits: That's a staff

Brad Underwood's staff is finalized -- and Illini Inquirer publisher Jeremy Werner has thoughts about it.

That's a wrap, and that's a staff. Following the official announcements of the additions of assistant Chin Coleman and support staffer Stephen Gentry, Illinois head coach Brad Underwood's first staff at Illinois is set. So let's analyze, shall we?

This is an upgrade for Illinois. Though it's not in two spots. Jamall Walker is not an improvement over Jamall Walker because Jamall Walker is the pretty much the same Jamall Walker -- except he's five years wiser and more familiar with the Illinois landscape. So, actually, he's probably a slight upgrade over 2012 Jamall Walker! Underwood traded Paris Parham -- former Chicago Public League coach piped into Chicago recruiting -- for Coleman, former Mac Irvin Fire coach piped into Chicago recruiting. On the surface, it seems about a break-even situation. The big upgrade on the assistant staff is Orlando Antigua over Dustin Ford. I liked Ford personally, but he didn't bring much recruiting muster. Antigua has recruited NBA superstars. And of course, the head coach is an upgrade -- possibly a huge one. Groce went 34-30 in the MAC in four seasons at Ohio. Underwood went 53-1 in the Southland Conference and 9-9 in his lone season in the Big 12. Groce has missed the last four NCAA Tournaments. Underwood has made the last four NCAA Tournaments -- with less talented teams than Groce in at least three of those four seasons.

It's OK to have wanted more. Underwood was looking for more. Coleman -- an assistant at Illinois-Chicago -- has some traits that can help Illinois, but in reality, he could've been announced last week or the week prior. But Underwood was shooting for bigger. He pushed for former Indiana assistant Chuck Martin, who had multiple suitors including South Carolina. Underwood had $850,000 to spend on his three assistants -- and maybe could've gotten more if he could've landed Martin -- and made a big splash on one of his three hires. The money wasn't enough to entice some other higher-profile assistants to Illinois, which could be a sign of where Illinois stands currently or whether assistants want to recruit Chicago. Either way, many coaches in the industry seem to have some hesitation about Illinois. Underwood's job is to change that.

Underwood is admitting that Chicago matters by hiring Coleman. Some Illini fans have the urge to give the middle finger to Chicago -- which hasn't reciprocated much loyalty to Illinois for all its efforts in the city during the last few decades -- and it seems an even better idea since the inner-city talent is down the next few years. But that's probably not a smart move. Chicago will produce plenty of talent soon, and Illinois needs to be in position to land it. Parham helped land Kendrick Nunn and D.J. Williams but was unable to land Charlie Moore. Coleman's first big test will be 2018 five-star point guard Ayo Dosunmu, who plays for Coleman's close friend Nick Irvin but has a strong family helping him with the recruitment. Underwood hired one of Chicago's own but shouldn't bow to Chicago. Go find talent and fits, regardless of their home address. Hopefully Coleman can help him cut through some of the BS, but from all accounts Parham did that for Groce. Maybe Underwood will just better utilize his "Chicago guy."

So Underwood took three weeks to contact many Chicago-area coaches. That's a bit of a misstep. A quick text or call to some of them -- especially the ones also involved in pulling Chicagoland talent into the area's best AAU programs -- during the first week would've helped But the Illini head coach, who had a crazy busy schedule in his first week due to media and recruiting obligations, didn't really have anyone around him to advise him that reaching out as quickly as possible would've been a good idea. But the fact that there is backlash in Chicago over the timing of Underwood's outreach is just another reason why some coaches have no interest in recruiting Chicago.

Walker still has value. Losing Jeremiah Tilmon really, really stings. But Walker seemingly couldn't do much more to hold onto one that just got a bit too wild. Walker spent more than four years recruiting Tilmon and had mom on his side. In the end, Tilmon listened to too many people other than mom for Illinois to hold on through the coaching change. But Walker -- who landed Leron Black and Jalen Coleman-Lands -- can flex his muscle if the Illini land Mark Smith and 2019 in-state stud E.J. LiddellBut after becoming a short-term local darling as interim coach and holder of a top-10 recruiting class, Walker has a bit of pressure on him to produce.

Antigua is so intriguing in so many ways. Most associated with the Illini loathe John Calipari (unquestionably the best recruiter in the country) and how he does things -- or how they perceive that he does things. Athletics director Josh Whitman has said repeatedly that "integrity" is the top priority in his athletics program. But he gave the OK for his new basketball head coach to hire an assistant who left a program under investigation by the NCAA for alleged academic fraud. But the bottom line is that Antigua can recruit. And Whitman says #WeWillWin. That's a big statement. You need to get talent to win. Antigua is a proven talent-getter. I'll be interested to hear what all parties at Illinois (Whitman, Underwood and Antigua) say about Antigua's history. But the hire says that they're so sick of losing that they're willing to take on some baggage -- and possibly some risk. And most Illini fans will approve the move because they feel the same.

Because none of the assistants have ever worked for Underwood, assistant to the head coach Stephen Gentry is a huge hire.  The assistant to the head coach -- kinda like assistant to the regional manager -- cannot recruit off campus nor coach players during practice, but it is a vital role. It is a strategy- and scheme-heavy position, basically the right-hand man of X's and O's for the head coach. Gentry served a similar role at Oklahoma State last year but also was an assistant coach for three years for Underwood at SFA. So the Illini basically have a fourth assistant on the staff, and one with great familiarity with Underwood's style, schemes and tendencies. Gentry, who was in the running for some assistant jobs, has the trust of Underwood and hopefully by now feels comfortable challenging his boss. Additional experience as a Gonzaga player under Mark Few and as a video intern under Pat Riley can't hurt. This role was filled by some good people on Groce's staff: Darren Hertz (now at Dayton under Anthony Grant), Ryan Pedon (now an assistant at Butler) and Brandon Miller (went on to become Butler head coach before leaving the business for personal issues). Groce missed an opportunity in 2015 when Pedon left for Butler -- even though Hertz is a good basketball mind. The staff could've used a shake-up, and Ford would've been better utilized as the assistant to the head coach. That would've opened the door for Groce to hire a young but fast-rising assistant with Illini history who had interest in an assistant role but nothing smaller: Roger Powell.

Don't be mistaken; this staff is undertaking a rebuild.  Though, it can be a quicker rebuild. Groce supplied some nice longer-term pieces. There are three potential junior starters (Coleman-Lands, Black and Michael Finke). There are two solid sophomores (Te'Jon Lucas and Kipper Nichols) who can be key players on good teams and two freshmen with high ceilings (Trent Frazier and Da'Monte WIlliams). But  this team lacks the size and go-to star to be a factor in the Big Ten next season. It'd be a shock if they didn't finish in the bottom half of the Big Ten again -- unless Underwood lands several immediate impact transfers and freshmen -- and likely will be picked to finish in the bottom five of the conference. Yet, this roster still has the chance to be pretty good in 2018-19 if it lands the right combination of players during the next calendar year (two recruiting classes).

As many minutes as it took you to read this is the amount of messages the new Illinois staff sent Mark Smith during that time frame. Or it should be -- within the NCAA rules, of course. Miles Bridges staying at Michigan State makes the Spartans a heavy favorite to win the Big Ten next year but also gives Illinois a wider opening for Smith. The Illini staff needs to "I'm the juggernaut" their way through it and land the Illini's first Illinois Mr. Basketball since Jereme Richmond. I can almost guarantee you this one -- both the Mr. Basketball and the new staff -- will go better than the last one with the Illini. Nowhere to go but up, right?


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