"Keeping players at home is a vital part of any program's success."
That's what Illini head coach Brad Underwood said when he took the podium to be introduced as the new boss just less than a month ago. And while it hasn't been long, he's tasked with turning those words into action.
It's been a whirlwind beginning to Underwood's Illinois tenure. The Illini lost blue-chip big man Jeremiah Tilmon from their class with his request and the granting of his release. Two-time first-team All-State selection Javon Pickett did the same. These were two of the best players in that state that Underwood was talking about.
But there have been positives. Illinois held onto top-100 point guard Trent Frazier and four-star combo guard Da'Monte Williams. And Underwood was able to assemble an assistant staff with tons of potential -- adding Orlando Antigua and Chin Coleman to the retention of Jamall Walker.
Underwood has his 'talent-getters'. With four open scholarships just for next season's roster, it's time to go get talent.
Right away, two names come to mind. A pair of Mr. Basketballs from the state. Mark Smith has been the guy. And why wouldn't he be? Strength, athleticism, scoring ability, versatility, basketball IQ -- he has it all. Illinois has pursued him as such.
But now, Smith isn't the only Illinois Mr. Basketball on the board back in the state. On Thursday night, 2016 Mr. Basketball winner Charlie Moore announced that he has been granted his release to transfer from Cal after his freshman season.
Moore averaged 12.2 points and 3.5 assists per game last season, while shooting 38.8 percent from the field and 35.2 percent from three. Those numbers don't blow you out of the water. But how about 25 points, six assists and five steals per game as a senior at Morgan Park?
He's a jet-quick lead guard with handles, vision and a better outside stroke than his freshman numbers give him credit for. He has the ability to be a dynamic offensive player.
"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 at his press conference. "We are very committed to a style of play."
Moore is a heck of a fit to that style. And as Underwood is committed to that style, you can bet Illinois will be committed to making a run at Moore.
This transfer news came one day after the Illini hired Coleman, whose blood runs deep in Chicago and into that Mac Irvin Fire program. Moore played for Nick Irvin at Morgan Park. He played on the AAU circuit for Mike Irvin, who gave a rave review to IlliniInquirer.com about Coleman and said he's had multiple conversations with Underwood.
You think Moore might have come up in those conversations? Go ahead and answer that.
Coleman already got to work in Chicago as soon as he was hired. Five-star 2018 point guard Ayo Dosunmu said that Coleman hit his phone just one hour after being announced as the new assistant. Coleman also talked to Simeon 2018 forward Talen Horton-Tucker.
"(He was) just telling me how he wants to bring me with him as his first real recruit," Horton-Tucker told IlliniInquirer.com.
First real recruit, eh? So not like a transfer or anything. Hmmmm....
There are two obvious responses here. Do we know if the interest in Moore would be reciprocated? Illinois showed plenty of love and interest the first two times they were in the running for him. But they didn't get him.
Coleman is a difference, though. And Moore would like to be closer to home and his father, who had a stroke in the fall of 2015. Champaign is an easy shot down I-57. And Underwood has made the Irvins very pleased recently.
Of course, Cuonzo Martin will probably try to get Moore to Mizzou after landing him at Cal. As soon as Martin left, there was buzz that he would potentially follow.
But with Martin actively trying to complete the Tilmon heist, the Illini could find some sweet solace if they swiped Moore on his move back to the Midwest.
Braggin' Rights is going to be fun, ain't it?
Here's the other thing that comes to mind: Does Illinois have to tread carefully here because of Smith? The Illini have been in a fistfight with Michigan State, and Kentucky is a heavyweight that hasn't been told to go away. Underwood has to push the right buttons and throw the right punches here.
The Illini have done that recently. Smith had reasons to drop Illinois along the way. Heavy-hitters coming at him and Tilmon jumps off the Illini ship, but Smith still didn't cast Illinois off.
Instead, the word is that Underwood killed it during the in-home visit last week -- with Walker and Antigua by his side. Smith went to East Lansing for an official visit afterwards and he didn't commit. That was huge.
Smith wants to visit Kentucky. NBA. NBA. NBA. That's what they sell. You dream it and we make it happen. But you have to actually play for that to actually happen. Ask Charles Matthews. Kentucky has a McDonald's All-American point guard, a top-50 combo guard and just landed another top-100 combo guard.
The fit doesn't seem right. Ohio State has been talked about as another visit spot. The Buckeyes don't 'pop' like they used to.
There's a legit shot Illinois holds on in this thing. And they're working on lining up one more in-home visit to make it happen.
Smith has a higher ceiling than Moore. Just about anyone in Illini nation would place their preference there. And of course, they don't want any part of anything that could mess that up.
Don't want to mess this thing up? Don't hold yourself back from either of the two. This is addressed on page number 2015 in your history books under the section titled: 'Brunson and then Evans'.
Illinois hasn't had a Mr. Basketball from the home state since Jereme Richmond. Go get one. Don't overthink it. And don't expect that Underwood's staff will.
Believe it or not, this could actually help push things along with Smith. It's possible. Think of it this way: Smith has a lot of love for Illinois. He blatantly said he wanted to play for John Groce. But Groce isn't here and that gets Illinois nothing. The landscape has changed. But Illinois still stands with a new head coach who has done well with him. And there are still strings that pull on Smith's heart.
That being said, the love affair has left Smith with all the leverage. Illinois has poured it out with their detailed plan on how to feature Smith right away -- something he's not getting at MSU or Kentucky. They know his game better than any. But to this point, the Illini have been the suitor Smith knows he could have at any time. And there's been nothing for Smith to worry about in his flirtation with what else is out there.
That's part of the process. But it can be frustrating. "I love you but I'm still thinking." In fact, there's been buzz that Smith thinks he already knows what he wants to do. Again, he could have already committed to Michigan State when he visited there or shortly after. Generally, odds decrease with every week that goes by after taking that official.
So there Illinois sits. But now having Moore on the board can put Smith's love to the test a little bit. The Illini could just as easily make the other Mr. Basketball some of the same promises.
That is -- unless Smith has something he wants to promise.
This is a pressure-packed moment for Underwood and his staff early in their tenure. Their success rate in this quick-hitting push for talent will say quite a bit about the trajectory of this program off the bat.
They are searching far and wide for transfers and other options. But back home, the two major hotbeds for talent in the state -- Chicago and metro-east -- have a Mr. Basketball on the open market.