I wrote this same article for Lovie Smith. We have this new coach, we have this here roster of players... how well will it mesh in the first few years? Does he have a roster where he can win immediately or will it take some time? Let's go through all the returning players + the recruits.
For starters, I don't think we can say that everyone will be back. DJ Williams took that "leave of absence" during the season, which felt a lot like Jereme Richmond's leave of absence back in 2011 (which led to him eventually leaving the program). And players tend to transfer after their sophomore season (so they they can take their sit-out year and then have two years at their next destination), so we probably have to look at Aaron Jordan the same way. If he returns for his junior year, he's sticking it out, but this is usually when players who aren't getting playing time will leave.
I'm hoping both return, of course, as a new system and new outlook could give them a bump towards serious minutes in the rotation (not to mention the five seniors graduating). I think we should probably lay out the full roster here before we break it down.
Trent Frazier (has confirmed on Twitter that he is sticking with Illinois)
Jeremiah Tilmon (have to be honest - he's a question mark at this point)
I suppose I should take even one more step back and look at recruiting before we look forward at Underwood + this roster.
Mark Smith from Edwardsville, this year's Charlie Moore/Marcus Lovett/Patrick Beverly senior year out-of-nowhere player, is still yet to make a decision. I'm sure he's priority #1 for Underwood right now. He's said in several interviews that he grew up an Illini fan. If Underwood can close the deal with Smith, the backcourt feels fairly set.
The frontcourt is still a bit frightening. Right now, next season is probably 27 minutes for Leron Black, 27 minutes for Michael Finke, and 26 minutes for Jeremiah Tilmon (and hope none of the three get in foul trouble because there is no one else). Say disaster strikes and Cuonzo Martin lures Jamall Walker to Missouri (which, in turn, lures Jeremiah Tilmon to Missouri). That would mean next year's frontcourt rotation would be 32 minutes from Black, 32 minutes from Finke, and... 16 minutes from walkon Cameron Liss? Maybe you could get Kipper some minutes at the four (we'll look at that in a bit), but really, Liss would probably play a fair bit. There's no other forwards on the entire roster.
Now, this could also be corrected through recruiting. Maybe there's a fifth-year transfer forward out there (or maybe even a juco guy) who could come in and provide backup minutes in the frontcourt. But at this point, getting confirmation from Tilmon is wildly important.
OK, so with that clarified, I'll go ahead and evaluate assuming all players return/stay committed. This will need to be adjusted if they leave, but for now, here's what Underwood has to work with.
+ I watched a few hours worth of videos from the Stephen F. Austin athletic department this morning (I didn't have anything else to do). Several "mic'd up at practice videos", lots of press conferences, etc. The main thing that stuck out was, well, the same thing everyone is talking about: up-tempo offense. So many times he said his "we look for shots in the first seven seconds of the shot clock (before the defense is set up)". He also talked a lot about running "four-out, one-in motion" and how they "don't mind going small" and their emphasis on offensive rebounds.
That's probably a good thing for our frontcourt concerns. I think the strength of the next few rosters will be the backcourt, and when you're a "crash the offensive glass" team you're also a "the guards have to be really great with the 3-on-2 coming back the other way" team. And you need guys who can guard the four on one end but also do some guard-like things on the offensive end (you know, like shoot).
That probably means good things for Kipper. If he can guard the post, he can be one of the two "bigs" rotating out to the perimeter (and then back in when the other guy goes out) for a four-out, one-in offense. He showed this season that he can shoot the three AND he can get some garbage put-backs, so while I think he's a wing, he might be able to play some "4". Might even flourish there.
It's also probably good that Leron and Finke both have range out to the three point line (I know, I still wince a bit when Leron takes a three too). If I understand four-out, one-in correctly, if one post player is in the low block on the left, the other his out at the three point line on the right (and vice versa). So it's probably a better fit for Finke and Black than, say, Mav.
But it's still crazy thin. Finke + Black + maybe some Kipper and that's it besides one walkon. Tilmon has to come and he has to be ready to immediately play 20 minutes per game.
+ In the backcourt, I think Underwood will like what he finds. Te'Jon showed flashes as a freshman, JCL can be the needed pure shooter, and there's a lot of hope for Trent Frazier to come in and contribute right away. Add Mark Smith to that and I think Underwood might have four guards who could be really good by the end of his second season.
And I don't mean to discount Aaron Jordan (or even DaMonte Williams and Javon Pickett). Every time there's a new coach there's always a player who blossoms under the new system. Remember Brian Johnson once Kruger arrived? From "barely contributes" to "starter on a Big Ten Championships team". Who knows, maybe that's Aaron Jordan for Underwood. Maybe this system is built for his strengths.
The place where it gets fuzzy for me: how are the "wings" used in this offense? DJ Williams, Kipper Nichols, even taller, lankier guards like Javon Pickett. If Underwood likes to get out and run, the first name that I think of is DJ Williams (who I think could be a great finisher on the fast break). But again, he might have already decided on a transfer back in January and is preparing to move to his new school as I type this.
If you watched the Michigan/Oklahoma State game on Friday, you saw how Jawun Evans (remember him?) was perfect for this offense. So a lot will depend on advancement from Te'Jon Lucas, immediate readiness from Trent Frazier, and, hopefully, a verbal from Mark Smith. Oh, and a healthy rehab from the torn ACL for DaMonte Williams.
As we talked about last week, Underwood gets a practice season. He'll inherit this roster in the fall and work with the same players all the way up through the 2018/19 NCAA Tournament. He'll have 60+ games to take them from, well, this underperforming 18-14 group to, hopefully, a tournament run. It might be a little ugly at first (it was at Oklahoma State, what with their 12-13 start this season), but once it clicks, I think this is a roster that Underwood can win with.
And then hopefully recruit even better replacements and win even more.