Henricksen: How about an all-Illinois basketball mailbag?

Brad Underwood, newly hired men's basketball coach at Illinois, speaks to reporters in Champaign, Ill., Monday, March 20, 2017. (John Dixon/The News-Gazette via AP) ORG XMIT: ILCHN324

Despite some frustrating news for Illinois basketball fans this past week, there is always passion from its most rabid fans. That was prevalent once again over the past few weeks as I’ve taken so many emails, texts and direct messages on Twitter from Illini fans.

Unfortunately, so many of them were of the pessimistic or doubting variety.

I decided to take the most interesting and noteworthy questions from fans during that time for an all-Illinois recruiting/coaching hire mailbag.

Here we go …

QUESTION: If you had to include an all-time Illinois recruiting miss team, and I’m talking players who really were legitimate recruits who came close to signing with the Illini or at least went down to the wire with Illinois, give me your top 10.

–– Ed C from Hoffman

HOOPS REPORT: Oh, Ed, you really want to go down that painful road again? There are so many Illinois fans have probably grieved over and forgotten.

Like no one remembers just how deep and how good of shape Illinois was in for Bobby Simmons of Simeon before he ultimately headed to DePaul. Now you want to rip open that wound and so many others all over again?

Based on various degrees of importance, perception, recruiting back stories and being in the hunt, here are the top 10:

• Russell Cross, Manley
• Michael Payne, Quincy
• Ed Horton, Springfield Lanphier
• LaPhonso Ellis, East St. Louis Lincol
• Bobby Simmons, Simeon
• Eric Gordon, Indianapolis North Central
• Jon Scheyer, Glenbrook North
• Evan Turner, St. Joseph
• Cliff Alexander, Curie
• Jalen Brunson, Stevenson


QUESTION: I don’t see any way that Jeremiah Tilmon stays true to his commitment to Illinois. Why would he go to Illinois and play for a new coach he doesn’t even know when he can open this thing back up again for all suitors?

I’ve heard you mention on a radio show down near here that you kind of felt Tilmon was overrated? Forgive me if I’m putting words into your mouth or you don’t believe that. But could you expand on that if true and will it not be as big of a loss as everyone thinks? Thanks and love hearing your interviews.

–– The Chief in Monticello

HOOPS REPORT: This question came in last week before Tilmon asked for his release, so it looks like the Chief was prophetic. Impressive.

Anyway you look at the Tilmon saga it’s a big loss, because of the need at the position. Everyone covets talented players with size. But his potential as a player and the perception of losing a nationally-ranked player from your own state hurts. That’s a huge public relations hit.

I don’t believe I ever used the word “overrated” in referencing Tilmon. I do recall talking about how I believed there were over-the-top expectations for the kid. This is not an instant program-changing type of recruit as a freshman. But I do think a coaching staff with terrific player development abilities has a ton to work with in the 6-10 Tilmon. If his mind is right and the dedication is there, Tilmon could make major strides between the time he gets on a campus in June and plays his first game in November.


QUESTION: Is Illinois seriously going to go 0-for-3 with recruits from the St. Louis area? Give us a little good news?

–– Stewart in Palos Heights

HOOPS REPORT: Unfortunately for Illini fans, they could be talking 0-for-4.

The big one, star recruit Jeremiah Tilmon of East St. Louis, asked out of his LOI. Belleville East star Javon Pickett has done the same. Plus, the current recruitment of Edwardsville’s Mark Smith, one of the best unsigned prospects in the country, is clearly up in the air. But I don’t think anyone has a clear picture of where this one is headed.

But there is a sense of urgency when it comes to Smith, the 6-4 guard who came out of nowhere to become a coveted high-major prospect. Has there ever been four high-major prospects all in the same class on this side of the Mississippi in the St. Louis area? Ever?

When you throw in Jordan Goodwin of Belleville Althoff, who spurned Illinois for Saint Louis, that’s 0-for-4 if Smith says no. We’re currently talking the City/Suburban Hoops Report’s No. 1, No. 2, No. 3 and No. 6 ranked prospects in the state, including three who are ranked among the top 100 players in the country.

Illinois fans can talk all they want about the aforementioned misses listed above (and many others), but where will this recruiting carnage stack up in the annals of Illinois basketball if it does lose Smith? How will the Metro East Massacre be remembered years from now?


QUESTION: What do you make of all these kids de-committing from Illinois? Is it the belief or lack thereof in the program? People in their ear? The new coaching staff?

–– R. McCullers

HOOPS REPORT: It’s happening everywhere, all over the country, so it’s important to recognize for once it’s not just always Chicago that’s a pain in the neck to recruit. Those were two southern Illinois kids who asked out of their release this past week at Illinois.

Every case is different. But in their defense, there was a coaching change, which is the most common reason for a release of this nature.

When John Groce was fired I was one who just didn’t believe any coach would be able to come in and keep the class together and the tide rolling with Mark Smith. These kids basically have an opt-out clause in these situations, unlike players who are already in the program and would have to sit out a year if they chose to transfer.


QUESTION: I read your tweet saying you praised the hire of Brad Underwood. But knowing now that the heralded recruiting class is falling apart would you have hired someone else or even kept John Groce?

–– TC

HOOPS REPORT: That’s an interesting question that continues to be brought up more and more of late.

With a coaching vacancy to fill, I did applaud Illinois for landing Brad Underwood on the day it was announced. Now I have never talked to or met Underwood, so I can only go by what I’ve watched, researched and heard. And since the day Underwood was hired I’ve listened to nothing but rave reviews from college coaches I have spoken with –– from those in the Big 12 and those in the Big Ten.

I don’t care whose players Underwood won with, he won a lot. I love coaches who win big within their own conference, winning regular season championships. That means even after that first round of conference games and coaches in the league make adjustments and prepare differently for the second go-around, Underwood still went and kicked ass.

Last season Oklahoma State went 9-3 in its final dozen regular season Big 12 Conference games. And he compiled a 53-1 conference record in three seasons at Stephen F. Austin. I love that.

And I love coaches who win with the style and approach Underwood’s teams play with.

But I did say privately to anyone who would listen –– and I know I was completely in the minority (maybe the only one?) –– that I would have kept John Groce around for one more year. I know, I know, I know, I’m talking to a very frustrated Illinois fan base.

As I’ve said, I didn’t think any new coach or staff would be able to keep the current recruiting class intact –– and add Mark Smith of Edwardsville on top of it. I just didn’t. I’ve been pretty convinced that all happens, though, if Groce was left alone and returned.

But without that talent-filled recruiting class stacked on top of the returning players on the current roster, no coach was going to go to an NCAA Tournament next season at Illinois. So next season was going to be a wash with any first-year coach. So in the grand scheme of things there just wasn’t a lot to gain when it came specifically to the 2017-2018 season.

It would have taken some serious intestinal fortitude for an athletic director at Illinois to look at its fan base and say to them we are keeping a coach who has missed four straight NCAA Tournaments. The firing of John Groce was far from controversial. He didn’t win nearly enough. I get that.

But there were some different circumstances here that we are not accustomed to seeing in college basketball. How often has a struggling program brought in a top 10 recruiting class and is on the verge of adding another top 100 talent, Mark Smith, to that class?

This idea of mine was all about forward-thinking and avoiding a major rebuild of a basketball program. Illinois keeps Groce, the fan base is angered and beside itself while Whitman is booed. But the recruiting class is restored, the current roster is a year older and better while Illinois has at least a glimmer of hope of making the NCAA Tournament next year.

If Groce misses the tournament next year, which I believed any first-year coach replacing Groce was going to do anyway, he’s fired 11 months from now. But the upshot is the roster is loaded and experienced the day the new coach is hired next March.

Yes, players leave a program when a coach is fired. But they would rather not have to transfer and sit out a year if they can avoid it. And you would think the group that spent a year together would see what was possible the following year with all that talent in place and returning.

With all that being said, Brad Underwood is the coach. And he’s without question a really good one with a chance to prove he’s a great one. Don’t underestimate the powers of a quality coach and culture change and what that can do in the very first year. He’s just now going to be short on talent.


QUESTION: I was wondering what you’ve heard from the Chicago Public League coaches in terms of their thoughts and interactions with coach Underwood since he’s been hired?

–– IlliniBob

HOOPS REPORT: As of Sunday, April 9 the four biggest, most talent-filled high school programs in the state and their coaches –– Simeon, Young, Curie and Morgan Park –– had not heard from the new Illinois head coach.

Simeon is a program that’s been as supportive to Illinois basketball as any in Illinois. And that goes back for decades. The Wolverines also have one of the very few high-major prospects in the state in the Class of 2018 in Talen Horton-Tucker.

Morgan Park has the top prospect in the state and a top 30 player in the country, junior guard Ayo Dosunmu, along with rising freshman Nimari Burnett.

Young and Curie are the past two Class 4A state champions in 2017 and 2016, respectively. Young also has a stable of Division I prospects in the program.

Every coach has a priority list of what needs to be done the first week or two on the job, and every coach’s priority list is likely different. While this is always a hot and touchy topic with any coaching hire at Illinois, it’s a fact that these are important coaches and programs in Illinois.

Is it a fresh coach’s mistake? Probably, yes, if you knew and understand the landscape of Chicago basketball and the tightness there is among the basketball people and how they talk and feel. I do know the top Public League coaches have been befuddled by there being zero communication with Underwood in three-plus weeks on the job.

No, there isn’t an abundance of high-major talent in the city. In fact, it’s currently bone dry and there wasn’t a single player in the senior class who signed with a high-major. Eventually, however, there will be players in the city and Illinois will need to tap into that valued resource in the future.

But Underwood made it a point in his introductory press conference to point out one of the reasons he valued the job at Illinois was because of the high school basketball in this state, even singling out the high school coaches and how good they are in Illinois.

There is so much to be done those first few weeks from media obligations, assembling a staff, getting to know your new team and, most importantly, trying to keep the highly-regarded recruiting class intact and add to it. So I’m sure those calls will be made eventually. But I believe there is an actual playbook to follow for any coach at Illinois who wants to seriously recruit Chicago and make this important basketball contingent part of the family.

Or maybe, just maybe, this is the head coach and staff that finally does what several people have been clamoring for: Illinois moving on from any reliance on the Chicago Public League. That will never be a decree publicly handed down, but I do know at least a couple Midwest high-majors who have an unwritten belief of not messing with Chicago. I personally believe it’s a foolish proposition, and I’m not saying this is the direction Underwood and his staff are taking. But I’ve been blown away by people who suggest it’s a road Illinois basketball should travel down.


QUESTION: I heard Robert Smith of Simeon mention on a radio show in Champaign that he thought Brad Underwood should have gone to the state championship game in Peoria the day he was hired. Do you think that would have made any kind of difference?

–– Central Illinois Hoops Fan

HOOPS REPORT: I’m not sure exactly what you are referring to when you ask, “Would it have made any kind of difference?” But here is what I did think at that time.

When reports surfaced Brad Underwood was going to be the new Illinois basketball coach the morning of Saturday, March 18, I immediately wondered if he would make a grand gesture that night.

As Underwood boarded the private plane headed to Illinois with athletic director Josh Whitman, I thought just maybe the coach would say, “Hey, boss, any chance we can fly to Peoria?”

That’s where Simeon was playing Young for a Class 4A state championship. Would there have been a better way to make your grand entrance as the new coach of the University of Illinois? Showing up the day you are hired to watch the biggest game in the state between two of the most noteworthy powerhouses and influential coaches in the state would certainly have sent an impressive message, I thought.

This scenario isn’t being rehashed to criticize Underwood because it didn’t go down that way. From the moment a head coach is hired through the first week or two on the job, it’s mad chaos, especially those first 48-72 hours. So I understand not being able to fit it in.

But it was just an idea and thought I had when I saw footage of Underwood’s “first day,” which included interviews at the Champaign airport and walking around the State Farm Center with Whitman. How cool would it have been to show up in Carver Arena for that game? But logistics and commitments on that first day are hectic, so it’s certainly excusable.


QUESTION: Does Illinois get Mark Smith?

–– The Illini Naysayer

HOOPS REPORT: I really don’t know. I typically have a good feel one way or another when a recruitment hits this stage. As of Monday, April 10, I just don’t with this one. It’s been a whirlwind for Smith with his late arrival to the high-major scene. Then on top of that he had several coaching changes at schools who were or began recruiting him.


QUESTION: Is Mark Smith really as hot of a prospect as it seems? Or is this the case of a typical unsigned prospect in the spring being over-recruited and hyped because no one else is really left? Is he a bit overrated now that he’s received this much attention?

–– Mark Imbriano from Frankfort

HOOPS REPORT: You’re definitely correct when you note the spring recruiting rush we so often see, where the stock and value of uncommitted prospects soars past where it should. That’s not the case with Edwardsville star Mark Smith.

He’s being billed as a no-brainer high-major prospect and that’s what he is as he goes down the home stretch of his recruitment. Smith will undoubtedly finish his senior year as a top three prospect in the class –– maybe as high as No. 2 –– when the final City/Suburban Hoops Report player rankings are released later this spring.

As I noted in a story this past season which you can read HERE, it’s a rare case where everything just came together for a player –– and this late in his high school career –– who finally put 100 percent into basketball and basketball only. It’s as if a perfect basketball concoction was finally put together. Better late than never. This kid brings so much to the table.


QUESTION: Of all the recruits who have been signed, lost or still being recruited, what player is the most important of all?

–– Bob Heston

HOOPS REPORT: Obviously, Jeremiah Tilmon is a player at a premium position. He’s 6-10, agile, moves so well and is only going to get better if he’s willing to be coached and put the time in. You know how difficult it is for a program to lock up a true big with that type of potential?

Then you throw in the fact he’s the highest ranked prospect Illinois has signed –– And, yes, he was actually signed! –– it’s such a huge hit and frustrating for Illinois fans.

But if there is player who wants out of his letter-of-intent when a head coach is fired, I 100 percent believe every player should be granted that release.


QUESTION: Who from the state does Underwood and his staff look to recruit in the Class of 2018 in Illinois not named Ayo?

–– Biscuit

HOOPS REPORT: Next year’s senior class in Illinois is bad. Really bad.

There is such a shortage of high-level talent in this state in the Class of 2018. That, in fact, is an underrated negative of this Class of 2017 falling apart the way it has for Illinois.

While we still don’t know all the pieces Underwood and his staff will put together between now and when practice begins next October, it’s at least looking like Illinois will have to dig deeper into this Class of 2018 than we originally thought. And when it comes to in-state talent, there isn’t much there.

Underwood, Jamall Walker, Orlando Antigua and whoever fills that third assistant spot are going to have to hit the rest of the country hard over the next two recruiting classes.

As you mentioned, Biscuit, Ayo Dosunmu from Morgan Park is the No. 1 prospect in the current junior class. But I have always liked what Talen Horton-Tucker of Simeon brings to the table as a basketball player. He’s a flat-out baller who can dribble, pass and shoot while having a firm understanding of the game.

Follow Joe Henricksen and the City/Suburban Hoops Report on Twitter @joehoopsreport


  • gene martin

    maybe it isn’t the players, maybe coaching, its hard to imagine that a big city like Chicago, & a basketball crazed state like Illinois can,t produce talent, I’m sure its kids just around neighborhoods in local boys club that can play wow . any time i read that the state & public league classes aren’t that good I have to wonder is the problem some where else?

  • jordan

    This is not starting off right for the new head coach. He should have attended the state games that were being played. Two of the state best players have asked to be released so that they can look into other options. Groce didn’t bring in J. Parker who was ranked as the number #1 in the country or the big kid from Whitney who also was ranked number #1 too. The top players are leaving the state and helping other schools win titles and leaving Illinois team at the bottom of their conferences. I would like to see this turn around and the players remain home and win NCAA’s rings. The head coach need to meet the high school coaches and build a relationship with them because if not he will be gone if a few years too. Hit the state’ HARD” head coach.

  • James

    No mention of Tim Finke in the class of 2018? I thought he was the #2 prospect in the state and has a brother on the team already.

  • Roger McCoy

    To me Tilmon seems a bit of a prima Donna. Reminds me of the attitude of Jerome Richmond, and we all know how that worked out. Pickett even said he felt slighted because BU was spending so much time in the area with Tilmon and Smith and not stopping by to continue his recruitment. Poor baby, did him get his feelings hurt? Did he forget that he had already been recruited and signed, and that he was a 3star and the other 2 were 3 and 4? As for Chicago. First things first. Their top recruits are all class of ’18. Get your ’17 recruiting done with an impending signing date around the corner then kiss the butts of the Chitown coaches. However, a 5 minute call would not have chewed up a lot of his time, and certainly might have helped. As would a 3 hour round trip drive to Peoria with a 30 minute visit to the state tournament sandwiched in to be introduced to a standing ovation as the new HC @ UI and maybe shake a few hands and converse briefly with a few influential coaches. We talk about people in the ears of these recruits; how about somebody gets in the ear of BU and explains to him how Illinois has changed a bit since he was at WIU. It would help if someone got him a copy of “how to Win Friends and Influence People”. Any way you look at it he’s he’s missed some great opportunities already, and why hasn’t Manny Jackson been recruited to help recruit Smith. Perfect ambassador for Illinois and Edwardsville alum???

  • James Molitor

    As a long time Illinois fan who follows my alma mater, Edwardsville. Let me tell you that I would have loved to have Tilmon as an Illini. As soon as he went back to East St. Louis I stated that he will never play at Illinois. Too many red flags, plus, he is not a 5 star recruit. Can only dunk the ball, will get pushed all over the place in the Big 10. I have seen him play many games. Pickett is a good outside shooter, but not a slasher. Smith, and I am prejudice is the real deal. Great player, great family and can do it all. The best player I have seen at Edwardsville since 1964. Was too young to have seen Mannie, Vaughn and Ohl. Please Mark, come to Illinois.

  • Vashon

    I think the whole discussion of the importance of recruiting the Chicago public league is probably 15 years dated. Simply put, the public league simply isn’t what it was for numerous reasons. I have also read and heard that there are contingent of college coaches who purposely steer clear of the public league because of the mess and let’s face it the talent level isn’t very good consistently and it hasn’t been for years. Groce bought into that dated hype and it got him Nunn, Tate and Williams from Simeon and none of them helped him win.

    Someone has to be honest here and say it: you cannot build a program depending the Chicago public league anymore. That time has come and gone. He probably did the right thing by staying out of the fray of reaching out to certain public league coaches upon his arrival. My unsolicited advice would be to recruit the kids that he believes can help his program regardless of where they plat. If there are coaches out there that don’t want to send their players to Illinois because they, the coaches, don’t feel entitled, so be it.

    Underwood holds the scholarships, there is no need to negotiate from a weakness when in the end, it’s the scholarship that is coveted.

  • Darth

    I think the active rumors that Finke, Coleman-Lands, Jordan, and Williams were all set to transfer if Groce stayed is what made Whitman decide to let Groce go. The recruiting win of the 2017 class would’ve been “marginalized” with the loss of upperclassmen.

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