Not Sure I Follow

May 10, 2019

I touched on this a bit last week when I wrote about our "late recruiting" style - how Brad Underwood has only signed one recruit in November so far with every other recruit joining in the spring. But I want to expand on that some more. I'm just not sure I understand how we're going about this whole recruiting thing.

Let's start with a snippet from that post to catch you up:

Looking back over John Groce's classes, every high school player he signed was signed in the early (November) signing period. Only the transfers (like Jon Ekey or Ahmad Starks or Kipper Nichols) were not added in November. So if we remove transfers from the equation and just look at high school commitments:

John Groce

Players signed in November: Nunn, Hill, Morgan, Tate, Colbert, Black, Finke, JCL, DJW, Jordan, Lucas
Players signed in April/May: none

Brad Underwood

Players signed in November: Dosunmu
Players signed in April/May: Smith, Vesel, Eboigbodin, Bezhanshvili, Kane, Griffin, Jones, Higgs, Cockburn, (Kouma?)

And I don't need to just compare it to Groce. Bruce Weber, Bill Self, Lon Kruger - November signing day was always the day we found out about our recruiting class. Rarely did anything stretch into the spring, and when it did, it was usually adding a juco player (Cleotis Brown, Dominic Keller) or a transfer (Jack Ingram, Jon Ekey). The high school recruiting was done in the fall. And the high school recruiting was done in the fall because if you waited until spring, 90% of the high school players had already chosen a school and there weren't many options available. Unless you want to pick over the scraps in April, you need to lock up the high school recruits in the fall.

That's where I'm getting hung up here. That's what I don't understand. To me, it has to fall into one of two general categories:

1. Underwood would love to land a big class in the fall. It's just that everyone says no.

He tried to land Landers Nolley and Colin Castleton and Talen Horton-Tucker during his first fall - they all simply said no. Same with Drew Timme and EJ Liddell and Quincy Guerrier this past fall. It's not like he hasn't gotten players on campus - players who would go on to sign somewhere else come November. This whole thing could be as simple as "he can't get anyone to say yes".

2. Underwood prefers to monitor players during their senior seasons - the more time to evaluate them, the better, because he has a type.

This was my theory from the beginning. That Underwood, with his very specific (and fairly unique) systems would add some head-scratcher recruits. He'd see a guy that most every other school had passed on but notice how well he passes from the high post and offer immediately. Kind of a Bo Ryan "that guard can back someone down in the low post I can use that" type thing.

This is different from, say, how John Groce recruited. Groce always seemed to immediately move to plan B. And his plan B almost always followed the rankings. Let's see if I can explain this.

John Groce was looking for a point guard in the 2016 class (when wasn't he?). The main focus seemed to be Zavier Simpson, now at Michigan. While we heard other names (Alterique Gilbert, who went to UConn; Tony Carr, who went to Penn State), Simpson seemed to be the #1 target. Groce got him to visit for the first weekend of the fall (Labor Day Weekend, I believe).

But we did not land Simpson. He picked Michigan two weeks later. Carr had picked Penn State in August, Gilbert had picked UConn in July, so our top targets were all gone. So Groce immediately (and I mean immediately) moves to plan B. The way I remember it, the very next day after Simpson picked Michigan, Groce had an in-home visit with Te'Jon Lucas. Lucas wasn't a top-100 player like Simpson, Carr, or Gilbert, but was in that next tier. That "might be a high major player, might be a mid major" tier. There were some flaws there (mainly shooting), but he could handle the rock, so evaluators put him outside the top-100. Groce didn't land his top targets, so it was on to the next guy on his (and everyone else's) list.

Brad Underwood obviously doesn't do that. It's May 10th and we have 10 players for next year (11 if Bernard Kouma ever signs). The freshmen move onto campus in less than a month and we still don't have a full roster. John Groce moved to Plan B within seconds of finding out Zavier Simpson was heading to Michigan; Underwood missed on EJ Liddell in September and, as far as I can tell, besides maybe pursuing transfer TJ Holyfield for that same spot, hasn't pursued any plan B kids (or C or D).

Like, had Groce missed on Liddell, he would have found someone else by November. That player might not have been a Big Ten player, but plan D was better than an open scholarship in Groce's eyes (at least from my view). He'd just go down the list to the next guy and then the next guy until someone says yes.

I don't think Underwood recruits like that. I mean, maybe he does, and maybe plans B, C, D, and E have all said no and we have open scholarships right now because no one wants to play basketball in Champaign. But it seems like he's more of an "I'll know it when I see it" kind of recruiter, and if he doesn't see anyone he likes for a certain role, he won't offer.

I mean, how else can you explain May 10th, nine players returning, one player signed? Find me another school without a coaching transition that has three open scholarships on May 10th. The only explanation I can come up with is that John Groce looks at Te'Jon Lucas and says "maybe, if he develops, he can help us down the road" and Brad Underwood looks at a similar player and either says "yes" or "no". He doesn't do plan B, then plan C, then plan D because he already knows those players can't help him. He'll find his guys, and he'll offer them, and if they don't come, he's not going to replace them with a flawed version of them. He thinks he'll be able to just spot another Giorgi somewhere.

Which, to me, is frightening. I've lived for consensus rankings for 21 years now. Take five different rankings, combine and average them, and there are your targets. It's not just one person's opinion on a player - you're getting a consensus. If you don't land the top power forward, move on to the next guy and then the next guy until you land the highest-ranked player you can land. The last thing you want to do is be left holding open scholarships when 98% of all players have committed somewhere.

That's what I don't understand about our current recruiting. Right now it seems like we prefer open scholarships to project recruits. Groce (or Weber or Self or Kruger) would have added a few projects by now. Maybe they don't work out, but it's better than an open ride. In the very worst case scenario, there's always a Plan F kid in March who is committed to Northern Kentucky who could be flipped by an offer from a Big Ten school. Maybe they don't work out, but it's better than adding nobody.

So it's either that or the very scary "we've offered Plan F recruits - they simply said they'd rather play at Northern Kentucky than Illinois". I don't want to believe that's the case, so I'm stuck assuming that Underwood is "I'll know it when I see it, and if I don't see it, I'm not offering".

I mean, maybe that's the case. Maybe we're betting on next year. Nobody wants to come here when we've gone 14-18 and then 12-21. We'll bank a few rides for next year, get the the Tournament, and then land some high-end recruits/transfers because we're selling a Tourney bid instead of 12-21. 2020 Plan A's are better than 2019 Plan D's.

Or maybe, I don't know, maybe we do have players lined up for these three open scholarships and we just haven't heard their names yet. The spring signing period doesn't end until Wednesday, so maybe this weekend we learn a whole bunch. Maybe Kouma is in and Holyfield is in and then we have one more surprise recruit or something.

But if not? If we're just planning on going into the 2019/20 season with ten or eleven players? I'm not sure I follow.


orangem on May 10 @ 11:14 AM CDT

Normally we would have recruited a guard, but chose not to because we are all in on Adam Miller, and want to show him he can have the keys. Should work, let's hope so!

IBFan on May 10 @ 11:22 AM CDT

Hoping January somehow would make it - didn't Higgs couldn't get healthy - left on good terms. Stated Brad did everything he could to help him thru issues. That's two schollies. Plus there have been plenty of late deciders and not to mention the whole circus with grad transfers. The staff also is going to hear "no" a lot. Many more offers going out, all across country, higher end targets. Their recruiting effort, style and situation with transfers is vastly different than others in the past....IMO.

AHSIllini32 on May 10 @ 11:29 AM CDT

I'm not sure I follow why you think we're going to go into the season with 2 or 3 open spots?

Kuoma's (very likely) going to sign. We're waiting on Holyfield's decision and if he goes elsewhere there's a high likelihood we fill that spot with a project recruit. Apparently we're interested in Isiah Moss so that's another option to fill a spot.

Lou-a-villini on May 10 @ 11:36 AM CDT

Hashtag #moreroomfortyler

Hoppy on May 10 @ 01:25 PM CDT

I have a feeling they have some sort of recruiting board with Plan A/B/C/etc.

The biggest difference, in my opinion, is the staff is simply way more quiet and less “leaky” then prior staffs. That makes it tough to gauge exactly what their plan is.

LosAngellini on May 10 @ 09:17 PM CDT

Great article. Hoping that the fact the staff is something like 1 for 60 in converting offers to commits is not a sign that they can’t convince recruits to come here. Not sure if that ratio is an outlier compared to other programs.

ATOillini on May 11 @ 09:14 AM CDT

Just count me as someone who is willing to let things play out for another year or two. When you reference Groce'e recruiting I'm always going to default back to that article you wrote during his tenure which I believe was titled "Unprecedented". I know that I too was extremely exited with that list of potential high level recruits. As we all know, things didn't pan out as planned, and we ended up with quite a few players of the TJL caliber. It was plainly obvious we were going nowhere.

Meanwhile, when was the last player to wear the O and B that was like the radar recruit that ends up being an extremely valuable freshman with hopefully a great career ahead of him? Was that all just a never to be repeated lucky find, or does this staff actually know something?

I too wish for the long ago days that you've written about many times here where we landed McDonalds All-Americans. Yet I often ask myself if that has any chance at reality anymore. ESPN has become nothing more than a year round advertisement for Duke, NC, Kentucky, Kansas and maybe a few more on the periphery (like MSU). I hadn't watched one second of any McD All-American game for many years, but just happened to flip it on at halftime this year. All I saw was an ESPN interviewer sitting with 3 of the players in the each from Duke, NC and Kentucky. Apparently a couple of the other players in that game were still undecided and the interviewer asked each of those 3 to make a case why the unsigned should attend their respective schools. I immediately moved channels. It is almost impossible to compete with that kind of built in advantage which has only become stronger over time.

Guess what I'm saying is the staff has to take this into account. I understand it is absolutely true we have still continued to miss on people we wanted badly. Not denying that at all. But as I said earlier, I'm still willing to give things more time.

BelieveInIllinois on May 11 @ 09:35 AM CDT

I don't think it's a big deal if we have only 11 guys on scholarship. You can't keep that many guys happy let alone 12 or 13. So unless you have a development guy who is happy with that role, 11 is fine with me.

orangejulius on May 11 @ 03:54 PM CDT

Mostly it is #1. Our coach is a poor recruiter.

Groundhogday on May 12 @ 10:46 PM CDT

"Underwood prefers to monitor players during their senior seasons - the more time to evaluate them, the better, because he has a type."

Problem is that we only have one signee this spring. 1-13 on official visits for the 2019 class. Brutal. Staff has to reassess their recruiting strategy, start to more accurately assess who is likely to sign.

Chukwuwumba on May 14 @ 09:36 AM CDT

Should the staff punt on the rest of the 2019 class?? Just focus on 2020 like most other schools, and so the staff is not behind again for next year?? Maybe focus on good leaders for 1 year grad transfers to fill out the 2019 class, not so much talented players.

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