I've been out of pocket the last several days (mother-in-law's funeral), so I haven't really been paying attention to any Illini news over the past week. So the best way to just start writing about the thing that sticks out the most when I look over the latest Illini news. And that would be OA.
I'm quite excited about the Orlando Antigua hire. Mostly for what it says.
As you might have noticed from every single basketball article I've ever written ever, I'm a recruiting >> coaching guy. I want to win a national championship, and coaching won't get you all the way there. I should use my Iowa example again.
My biggest fear was that we'd hire a Fran McCaffery. Coach at a lower level, probably not ever going to be a recruiter, mostly just wants to build a Nice Little Team that could, if everything fell together perfectly, maybe possibly make one Sweet 16 some day.
So when Underwood was hired, I was hesitant. I called him a Basketball Whisperer and likened him to a Bo Ryan type, but I remained concerned that he would recruit "safely". When I had the chance to sit down with him, I even asked him if he would be a "scheme fit" recruiter or a "chase five stars" recruiter (his answer: a little bit of both).
See, I'm a fan of a basketball program that went to the NCAA Tournament 21 out of 25 years from 1983 to 2007, gaining a five seed or higher 15 times and going to two Final Fours. And this was accomplished mostly through recruiting. Yes, Henson and Kruger and Self were solid coaches and could teach their systems, something we haven't seen very much lately. But they went to the Elite Eight and not the First Four because they got to coach Bruce Douglas and Nick Anderson and Frank Williams and Dee Brown. And we haven't really recruited a Dee Brown since Dee Brown.
Underwood is a great hire because he took Stephen F. Austin to a 12-seed with nobody recruits and then turned around Oklahoma State in a single year (with one superstar recruit, one breakout player, and several nobodies). I think he's the kind of coach that could take last year's roster and get a six-seed instead of the NIT.
But I don't want six seeds. I want two seeds. I want more Final Fours. I don't want to build a Nice Little Team, want that elusive national title. I don't want Iowa, I want (what used to be) Illinois.
Enter Orlando Antigua.
OK, pause. First let's start with what I'm not saying. I'm not saying Antigua alone will land multiple Nick Andersons and everything is saved. I'm not saying Underwood will attempt to recruit with Kentucky, Kansas, and Arizona and try to turn us into a one-and-done factory. I mean, NCAA sanctions could still possibly come down from the academic fraud investigation at South Florida and we would have to answer for them (similar to Missouri suspending Frank Haith for five games due to the investigation at Miami). This is not "Antigua hired everything is saved!".
I'm excited because of what it means. Iowa is not hiring an Orlando Antigua. They're not saying "we're going to weed deep into the recruiting muck and attempt to return with a McDonald's All American or two". They're content to build Nice Little Teams. This hire says that we are not.
Someone on The Deuce the other day said that this is like the reverse Zook, and I totally agree. To "Zook" is to hire a head coach who recruits and then let the assistants teach the football. This is the opposite - we hired a basketball whisperer head coach and now are hiring assistants simply for their recruiting. Let the assistants land the players, let the head coach teach them his schemes. Kinda like... Jimmy Collins and Lou Henson.
That's why I was so over-the-moon when I heard about Antigua. The guy who got Anthony Davis to come to Kentucky (and who was involved in getting Derrick Rose to Memphis, I believe) will now attempt to get the next superstar to Illinois. Underwood will have to be a closer, no doubt, and this won't work unless Underwood can close on recruits like Bill Self closed on recruits, but I really like the way this is setting up. We're still going to go big. We're still going to chase the players that can take you deeper than the first two rounds.
And with so many players defecting (Tilmon, Pickett), what was once a 2018 class with zero open scholarships now has as many as four. If we land a few players late here (for the 2017 class), that number goes down, but if anyone leaves the current roster, that number goes up. Regardless, what was once a "we'll maybe land one player in 2018 so the big focus is 2019" is now almost certainly "this is a widly important class with 3-4 scholarships to give out".
Let the games begin.