1. The Mark Alstork addition is even more significant
With Jalen Coleman-Lands joining former Illinois teammate D.J. Williams on the transfer market, Illinois now has just nine scholarship players set to be on its roster for the 2017-18 season -- and no player on the current roster has averaged double-digit points during an entire season at Illinois.
Coleman-Lands' defection hurts -- Illinois just lost a proven sharpshooter -- but Wednesday's addition of Mark Alstork absorbs a significant part of the blow.
Coleman-Lands regressed as a sophomore. His shooting percentages, scoring average and offensive efficiency declined. His turnover rate increased. Other parts of his game also stalled, possibly because he hasn't yet had a full healthy offseason. His defense didn't improve despite him having the length and quickness to be a pest on that end. His offensive repertoire remained highly one dimensional. Coleman-Lands shot 72.5 per event of his shots from three and averaged less than two free throws per game.
Still, Coleman-Lands was one of the elite shooters in the Big Ten (40.2 career three-point percentage) and seemed to be a potentially deadly fit for Underwood's pace-and-space offense. He was the only returning Illini to have averaged double digit points during a college basketball season (10.2 points during his freshman season).
Alstork shot the same percentage from three last year as Coleman-Lands (38.7 percent), but is a more dynamic scorer. He gets to the free-throw line at a high clip (6.5 per game last season) and makes them at a high rate (84.6 percent). He also can get to the rim and finish.
With Coleman-Lands' departure, Illinois lost a potentially elite sharpshooter and potentially elite depth in the backcourt. But Alstork, along with freshmen Mark Smith and Trent Frazier, give the Illini more dynamic backcourt options to go with solid sophomore point guard Te'Jon Lucas. The Illini still have a potentially potent backcourt.
2. Illini will rely heavily on freshmen guards
Thank goodness for Mark Smith. If the Illinois Mr. Basketball hadn't said 'yes' to Underwood -- he's the only recruit to do so since the coaching change -- it would be DEFCON 1 in Champaign.
Smith also fills a huge immediate need as a primary scorer -- and will take on an even larger role now.
There are some talented freshmen entering the Big Ten: Jordan Poole at Michigan, Nathan Reuters at Wisconsin, Bruno Fernando and Darryl Morsell at Maryland, Jaren Jackson and Xavier Tillman at Michigan State. But Smith has to be the odds-on favorite to lead Big Ten freshmen in scoring. None have a bigger immediate role and more opportunity for shots.
Well, except maybe teammate Trent Frazier. The top-100 guard now takes on even more of a shooting role, to go along with his lead guard capabilities with Lucas and Smith.
And those thoughts of red shirting Da'Monte Williams are probably thrown out the window. The Peoria product is still recovering from a torn ACL suffered last fall. He probably won't be fully ready to make a collegiate impact this season, but Underwood simply needs another body in the rotation, like Groce needed freshmen Mav Morgan, Jaylon Tate and Austin Colbert during his second season.
3. Groce's class of 2015 was a whiff
After Groce's dismissal, it seemed that he had left Underwood with a better roster situation than he assumed from Bruce Weber. That's starting to become more debatable.
Weber left a strong senior class that left Groce with a better opportunity to make a Year One impact than Underwood. Groce seemed to leave a better long-term situation. There are still some solid pieces remaining: Lucas, Frazier, Williams, sophomore forward Kipper Nichols and junior forwards Michael Finke and Leron Black. But Groce's argument that he left the program in a better place than he found it is looking more and more flawed.
If you were to grade his recruiting classes, his Class of 2013 probably receives a C. Malcolm Hill became the program's third leading scorer, and Mav Morgan turned into a quality offensive Big Ten big man. But Kendrick Nunn was dismissed after three productive seasons and guilty plea to battery. Austin Colbert transferred after two lackluster seasons, and Jaylon Tate just wasn't good enough for the Big Ten.
The Class of 2014, highlighted by missing out on Cliff Alexander and losing Quentin Snider, at the last minute probably receives a C to this point too. Michael Finke is a good offensive player with defensive deficiencies, but his best basketball appears ahead of him. Leron Black has showed flashes as a premier rebounder and solid mid-range shooter, but he missed one season with injury and missed four regular-season games last season due to an arrest.
The Class of 2015 though is looking like a big fat F.
Groce infamously whiffed on a point guard in the class, whiffing on Jalen Brunson and Jawun Evans while failing to offer Glynn Watson, a top-100 prospect and the half-brother of former Illini star Demetri McCamey. Elsewhere, D.J. Williams showed some athletic flashes but never showed consistency or big improvements. Coleman-Lands was a premier shooter but struggled with consistency and didn't seem to have much defensive desire. Unbelievably, Aaron Jordan is the last remaining player from Groce's Class of 2015. Most speculated he may be the first to leave. But now the 6-foot-5 guard has a huge opportunity. Jordan has been a positive presence. He works hard and by all accounts is a good teammate. He loves the University of Illinois. He buys into his role as a three-and-D player, though he needs to start making more threes.
4. Brad Underwood must prove his coaching chops immediately
Underwood's first Illini team returns just 30 percent of its scoring output from last season.
Illinois will be really inexperienced, returning just 35.9 percent of its minutes played from last season.
Illinois also will be short with an average height of 76.3 inches, which would've ranked in the 30th percentile of Division I teams. Only one high-major team with a shorter average height made the NCAA Tournament last season: Michigan State.
But there is reason for optimism. Underwood took on a similar task last season at Oklahoma State, a young (238th in experience), short (234th in average height) team that had experienced little previous collegiate success. He led that team to a 20-13 record and NCAA Tournament appearance.
Oklahoma State had an average height of 76.3 inches, yet ranked No. 4 in the country in offensive rebound percentage. Underwood, who had great defenses at Stephen F. Austin, altered his style to get the most out of the Cowboys. With a small team with few rim protectors, he focused more on pace (24th in shots in transition) and forcing turnovers (55th in the country), which led to OSU leading the country in offensive efficiency. That might help the Illini too, which -- despite ranking 73rd in the country last season in average height -- finished 307th in block percentage, 202nd in offensive rebound percentage and 349th in percentage of shots at the rim.
Of course, Oklahoma State had Jawun Evans. Can Underwood can get similar production out of Illinois' roster?
Underwood has a tough task in Year One at Illinois. But the optimist will consider that he faced a similar challenge last season at Oklahoma State and found success.
5. The Class of 2018 takes on much more significance
John Groce's staff had planned on just taking one or two prospects in the Class of 2018. Now, the Illini will add at least three and as many as five prospects in the class.
Underwood's staff seems to be more bullish on their 2018 opportunities and made a flurry of offers in the class just a few weeks ago.
The Illini are most heavily involved with three in-state prospects: five-star Chicago Morgan Park point guard Ayo Dosunmu, four-star Champaign Central guard Tim Finke and Chicago Simeon guard Talen Horton-Tucker.
But the Illini also have a huge need in the post. Of their 17 offers in the Class of 2018, eight are bigs. The Illini need Orlando Antigua to show his recruiting prowess and land an athletic big, like Darius Days, Amadou Sow or Morris Udeze.
Given that the 2017-18 season could be an uphill battle, the Illini need to make a splash in 2018 and land some immediate-impact players. The good news is that the Illini are only scheduled to lose Alstork (and any other potential grad transfers), so they should take big strides after this season.
Another potential positive: most Class of 2018 prospects will sign their national letters of intent in mid-November, before the Illini play many games -- so a potentially subpar first season may not have a huge effect on Underwood's 2018 recruiting efforts.