John Dixon/The News-Gazette
MEQUON, Wis. – This weekend at NY2LA Swish ‘N Dish in suburban Milwaukee was the start of the spring AAU circuit. It was also the beginning of the first recruiting cycle for Illinois with new coach Brad Underwood, who was hired two weeks ago,.
With the prominent Chicago area AAU clubs in attendance, Orange & Blue News talked to three of the biggest names and talent-producing coaches to get their take on the new Illini hire.
Illinois Wolves coach Mike Mullins has sent Tracy Abrams, Nnanna Egwu and Joseph Bertrand to Illinois. With the graduation of Abrams, Mullins says it’ll be the first time he hasn’t had a former player on the Illini roster. As an Under Armour AAU affiliate, Mullins is familiar with Underwood from his time at Stephen F. Austin, an UA school.
“I think he’s done a good job of finding players all over the country, which is a real asset,” Mullins said. “He likes skilled guys and toughness, and I think that’s going to be a fun style of play for fans and recruits.”
Mullins added that Underwood should fill his staff out with people he’s comfortable with, not just because they’re from Chicago or anyplace else.
“I understand right now that he’s putting his staff together,” he said. “That should be his priority, not AAU coaches. He should put together a staff that fits him and he’s comfortable with, then the recruiting starts in a couple weeks. That’s the most important thing.”
By all accounts, priority number one in Underwood’s first two weeks was re-recruiting the class of 2017 signees and making sure all were still onboard for coming to Champaign. Mission accomplished. The recruitment of Edwardsville senior Mark Smith is going down to the wire with the Illini hoping to fend off Michigan State and others as the late signing period approaches in 10 days.
Next up, Underwood is working on getting his staff together in time for the spring evaluation period in a few weeks. Keeping Jamall Walker was key for maintaining St. Louis-area connections, but two open spots remain.
“They need a good assistant coach that understands how to recruit Chicago and has relationships,” said Nick Irvin, coach of Morgan Park and the Mac Irvin Fire. “It’s all about relationships.”
Chicago coaches seemed to love Paris Parham, though. Parham, who was John Groce’s assistant charged with recruiting Chicago, landed DJ Williams and Jaylon Tate from Simeon but wasn’t able to lure the big fish.
“Parham did a great job, he got Jabari Parker on campus, he got Cliff Alexander on campus, he got Jalen Brunson on campus, Marcus Lovett, Charlie Moore … but they just couldn’t get them,” Irvin said. “It probably wasn’t the right time for them but Parham did his job.”
Irvin, too, says he hasn’t heard from Underwood yet. Had Underwood been able to bring his Oklahoma State assistant, Lamont Evans, that might have helped build a bridge for the new staff. But Evans was reportedly given big money to stay in Stillwater.
“Lamont Evans, he’s like a brother to me,” Irvin said. “Lamont is definitely good with us; we consider him a brother but unfortunately he didn’t (come to Illinois). But now (Underwood) has to put somebody on his staff that’s from Chicago and understands the landscape.”
Tyrone Slaughter, coach of powerhouse Chicago Whitney Young and the Meanstreets AAU club, is getting impatient despite the fact it’s only been two weeks since Underwood left Oklahoma State for Champaign.
“I have never spoken with (Underwood). I’ve heard from people that we’ve spoken with that he’s a good basketball guy and I have no reason to doubt that, but I’ve just never spoken with him,” Slaughter said.
For his part, Slaughter insists he wants to see Illinois succeed.
“To me, when I think of Illinois, I think they have to start making it a destination spot for student athletes out of the state of Illinois,” Slaughter said. “It’s our state school, why can’t we do what some of the other states are doing? But somebody has to have the fortitude to make that case and get it done. It only takes one or two (players) to get it started. We want to see them do well.”