1. This staff has charisma
Brad Underwood certainly has some pretty standard criteria for assistant coaching candidates. They have to be able to recruit, and they have to be able to coach.
But Underwood has another simple benchmark that must be met.
“One of the key components for me is I have to like guys," Underwood said. "That seems pretty juvenile to an extent, but we spend a lot of time together. Walking in the office every day and being around guys with personality and guys who fit the University of Illinois, guys who fit the same beliefs that I have is extremely important. I think I’ve accomplished that with this staff.”
After decades in the business, Underwood knows his strengths and weaknesses. He's known as one of the better basketball minds in the country. But he knows that to succeed -- at Illinois, in the Big Ten at a national level -- he needed to add some bigger personalities to help him recruit some of the country's best talent to play in his so-far-successful system.
He may have accomplished that goal. After a few weeks of recruiting, Underwood introduced his staff to the media on Tuesday, which provided a glimpse to diverse, charismatic personalities.
Former Kentucky assistant and USF head coach Orlando Antigua has a large presence -- and not just physically. Underwood raved about how people, mostly coaches, flocked to Antigua -- born in the Dominican Republic, raised in the Bronx and developed as a player at Pittsburgh -- during AAU tournaments last month.
“A guy who on the national level has tremendous clout in the recruiting game," Underwood said. "He’s recruited and coached some of the best players this game has to offer. ...His personality, it just bubbles and exudes. When we walk into a gym, everybody knows Orlando.”
Chicago native and former UIC assistant Ronald "Chin" Coleman displayed humor, intelligence and ambition in his media session -- showing why Underwood had confidence to call him up from the Horizon League to lead his Chicago recruiting efforts.
“He’s a guy that nationally has tremendous connections," Underwood said.
Jamall Walker, the lone holdover from John Groce's staff, is the most soft-spoken, most reverential of the group -- a fatherly figure for most of the current roster.
“He’s more than a recruiter," Underwood said. "He’s a guy who’s going to be a very good head coach someday.”
What this staff lacks is experience together. While all knew of each other and ran into each other on the recruiting trail prior to joining up at Illinois, the three assistants have never coached with one another or for Underwood. The head coach will have to coach his coaches on his system and scheme.
But Underwood -- who said he plans to add a player personnel/social media expert to his has proven his coaching works. Four NCAA Tournaments in four years, three of them at Stephen F. Austin. What he needs to succeed at Illinois are talented players. He seems to have recruited a staff that has the charisma to get the job done.
Oh, and he seems to truly enjoy sharing an office and road trips with them.
“It’s a staff that I feel great about in terms of our chemistry, our ability to work together,” Underwood said.
2. Whitman made the call on Antigua
Antigua was a splash hire -- in more than one way.
He was known as one of the country's top recruiters under John Calipari. But he also came to Illinois after getting fired midway through his third season as head coach at USF, in the middle of an NCAA investigation into allegations of academic fraud.
Underwood prioritized Antigua immediately. But the head coach had to get approval from his boss. Illinois athletics director Josh Whitman led the vetting process.
“I know (Antigua), and I know what his character is about," Underwood said. "Then Josh Whitman, our athletic director, did his due diligence. Basically, it was turned over into his hands. Basically, you can’t comment on something that’s still pending, but we did our due diligence, all the way to the top.
“I know Orlando as a person. I know what he stands for. I know his background. I think once that Josh vetted that and we dove into that, I was extremely confident in what his situation was. We’re all in this together. I wasn’t going to do anything to jeopardize anybody or anything at the University of Illinois, and Josh was extremely accommodating and has access to things that I don’t. It was a part of a procedure. We did our part.”
Antigua wouldn't and couldn't say much about an ongoing NCAA investigation. But he expressed confidence that the investigation is not a reflection of his values.
"Josh and Brad have done the due diligence," Antigua said. "I wouldn't be here speaking with you all if they hadn't. I think it's a great opportunity for me to be a part of this program and to be able to take this program to where we think we can grow it. I'm excited that Brad and Josh have the confidence in me to have me here."
3. The Illini are still working hard on 2017 class
Brad Underwood has three scholarships available to use for the 2017-18 roster. What does he need?
"Somebody taller than me would probably would help," Underwood said.
With 6-foot-10 rising junior Michael Finke sitting out with a foot injury, the tallest Illini players Underwood has coached so far are 6-foot-7 forwards Leron Black and D.J. Williams -- and those listed heights might be generous by an inch. So the Illini are searching hard for some length and athleticism to add to a thin frontcourt.
The late change of heart from Francesco Badocchi, who committed to Virginia during the weekend, was a mild sting. It would've stung a lot more had Edwardsville four-star guard Mark Smith not committed last week. Smith, the 2017 Illinois Mr. Baskeball, is a potential star. Badocchi is a nice complementary piece, the springy, long forward the Illini currently don't have on the roster. But Illinois can find another Badocchi. Maybe his name is Obadiah Toppin. Or maybe it's Justin Minaya.
Jeremiah Tilmon still hasn't signed anywhere since receiving his release. Most expect the four-star center to pick Mizzou, with Kansas and North Carolina remaining as possible options. But why hasn't he signed anywhere yet? Rationalizing that recruitment seems foolhardy.
The fifth-year transfer market doesn't offer much help on the interior -- as of yet. But the transfer market continues to evolve, and Illinois continues to monitor closely and weigh its options.
“We continue to look at every option, whether it’s fifth-year transfers, whether it’s transfer-and-sit, whether it’s high school kids," Underwood said. "I think the biggest challenge we have is not to make a mistake and not take somebody who doesn’t fill our need or may not be good enough just to fill the scholarship. I won’t do that.”
But Illinois certainly will add a few pieces -- preferably tall pieces.
"Some depth there and added size would be of importance," Underwood said. "We'll continue to evaluate the rest of that process and what it is, whether it's one or two guys we add up front or a transfer. We'll make the right decisions there."
4. Chin Coleman doesn't want to be pigeon-holed
Ronald "Chin" Coleman is a Chicago guy. He was born there, raised there and worked most of his professional life there.
He will play a huge role in Illinois recruiting the state of Illinois' largest city -- and one of the nation's hotbeds of basketball talent. That's the main reason he was hired.
But Coleman doesn't want to be known as just a "Chicago guy."
“I’m a good sailor who obviously knows how to navigate the terrain in Chicago and things of that nature," Coleman said. "This is the University of Illinois, so this is a national place. If you guys notice, we’ve already started to target and identify kids who are not necessarily in the Midwest or in our background but in a various number of places.
“Am I familiar (with Chicago), and is that in my wheelhouse? Is that where I was born and raised? Yes. But I wouldn’t just be put in that box. I’m not just a Chicago guy. I think my roots and capabilities go a little bit further than Chicago.”
"I think I’ve paid my dues, so I’ve got deep roots in Chicago," Coleman said. "I’m familiar with how things work there. That’s going to definitely help us.”
5. This staff recruits differently than the previous staff
Like so many previous Illini staffs, Underwood's crew will focus first on its Illinois footprint. Despite some higher-profile misses in Chicago, the Illinois roster has relied heavily on in-state talent during the failed previous two regimes.
So Underwood is probably wise to make a bigger effort to supplement his in-state efforts with "pipelines" elsewhere.
"We're going to look to go get them where our relationships are at," Antigua said. "I've been fortunate to be in a lot of places, so we'll look to go everywhere."
Antigua has a reputation as one of the nation's best recruiters after he recruited several blue-chip prospects -- and current NBA stars (Anthony Davis, DeMarcus Cousins, etc.) -- to Kentucky. He has deep ties in his home state of New York and, after spending the last three years as USF head coach, he has connections to Florida. Underwood also has ties to Florida and the Great Plains region, stretching into Texas.
"We were kind of in Florida a little bit, but now we're really involved in Florida," said Walker, who spent five years on Groce's Illinois staff. "With Antigua, we're going to New York and out east. But at the end of the day, we got to protect home. Chin's got the connections to Chicago. I'm down in Chicago along with the southern part of the state. We're always going to protect home first and keep the best players at home. I don't think that's changed. But we're casting a bit of a wider net."
John Groce's staff also kept a narrow focus in recruiting, choosing to focus on a few targets at each need in each class. That made recruits feel like priorities, but it also left the Illini vulnerable when their top targets went elsewhere -- with few or no backup options.
This staff has shown during the last couple weeks -- with dozens of offers extended -- that it will dip its toes into more waters.