CHAMPAIGN, Ill. – Not so long ago Brad Underwood almost proverbially stood in an empty room. His three assistant coaches within weeks took jobs elsewhere after the Illini won the Big Ten Tournament and were the No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
It was just over a year ago, actually.
And somehow, this all feels like an oversimplification of the last offseason, doesn’t it? It wasn’t just the turnover of assistant coaches – Chin Coleman and Orlando Antigua in Kentucky and Stephane Gentry to Gonzaga – but the uncertainty of the roster new assistant coaches encountered upon arrival. First of all, the technical staff. Chester Frazier was hired in mid-May, Geoff Alexander was promoted towards the end of May, and Tim Anderson — as the social media sky fell through a drawn-out process — was hired in July.
On the front of the list, Ayo Dosunmu was a lock to make a jump to the NBA. Kofi Cockburn was testing the draft waters before finally returning. Adam Miller hit the transfer portal. Giorgi Bezhanishvili turned pro. Illinois was still awaiting decisions from Thirty Frazier and Da’Monte Williams if they would use the extra year of eligibility due to the COVID-19 pandemic (they did).
From the outside, the ship looked quite unstable. One year later? Not really the case.
Illinois is buzzing after winning a share of the Big Ten championship (the program’s first in 17 years) and making another NCAA Tournament appearance, though again falling short of the second weekend.
Recruitment is progressing. Anderson and Frazier handled major recruiting duties which ultimately changed the recruiting committee significantly when new staff were hired. That culminated in Illinois signing a top-10 recruiting class in the 2022 cycle, with none of the four prospects considered a serious target ahead of the coaching staff change.
All three assistant coaches and Underwood were rewarded with post-season contract extensions.
Despite a roster overhaul, Illinois enters the season with a full year of coaching staff continuity, a talented roster, and with the slightest intention of competing in the Big Ten, and beyond, yet again.
“Much, much easier,” Underwood said of entering second year with his coaching staff. “I’m not going to say better because they did a lot of things really well. This staff is exceptional. Yet there’s always… people don’t understand how steep the learning curve is in the first year. Everyone was new except Geoff, so he knew the terminology and he knew me, but he has a different role. Then you search for that chemistry. I think we had great chemistry. I think the guys, Chester and Tim, were ready to learn, ready to be part of a team.
“I think that became evident in the fact that we won a Big Ten championship. It doesn’t happen if you have guys leaving, staff leaving and going in their own direction. They are exceptional. They are not only excellent recruiters. What is underestimated with this group of coaches is literally how good they are on the pitch. The evolution with these coaches is spectacular. The work they are doing with our guys, I was really impressed. It will be easier. They recruited these guys to have real interaction. That’s also the hardest part of last year is that they didn’t have a relationship. They had to build them as the season progressed as well.
The roles were established quite transparently last season. Frazier was the “defensive coordinator” while Alexander was the “offensive coordinator” and Anderson handled substitutions and game management. The chemistry of the coaching staff seemed to come together quickly. Part of that just meant finding the balance between one and the other.
“You try to be a member of the band,” Frazier said. “You don’t always have to be the lead singer, just try to be a member of the band and make us look good. Enter where you fit in and add value where you can. I think that’s what everyone tried to put on the table, and we all wanted to win. When everyone’s on the same page with winning, it seems easier than it is It’s not easy. It was new roles for everyone.
Says Alexander: “It’s not an ego. This is how we were able to start with a whole new team. We play each other. We are connected. We have great synergy. We are all after one thing and that is that victory column. It was easy. I think it can only go up from here. We will continue to sync up better as we move forward. I’m excited.”
On the recruiting front, Anderson was leading the four-star guard skyy clarkfour star striker Ty Rodgers and transfers Terrence Shannon Jr., Dain Dainja and Matthew Mayer. Frazier was the lead scout for the four-star guards Jayden Epps and Sencire Harris.
Underwood didn’t seem worried last season as he rebuilt his coaching staff and his patience was rewarded with a share of the conference championship and impressive recruiting that ranks 9th in the nation.
The Illini began summer training this month with a full roster, save for Mayer who will arrive in July, and one that Underwood and his coaching staff have patiently assembled throughout the season. offseason, knowing that a new style of play would be needed to install this off-season.
“I think Brad has a really unique blend of patience and impatience, and I say that in the most positive way,” the Illinois athletic director said. Josh Whitman said. “I think in those big times, whether it’s player turnover, staff turnover, Brad is very caring and has a very strong sense of identity. He understands who he is, who represents the program and he takes his time to identify who are the best candidates to be part of our family.I give him all the credit in the world.
“On the other hand, he has incredible competitive impatience, which is obviously important in a position like this. I appreciate how he understands what timing is required depending on the circumstances in front of him. give him all the credit because he’s been through a lot in his tenure here and he’s been resilient, brave, never lost his identity and his vision and never let the circumstances around him him to steer him away from his direction. I think it’s something that would have been easy to do at different times and he just remained steady in his approach. I think it’s very symbolic of who he is as a person He’s a tough, brave, hard-working guy who gets things done. Now, obviously, we’re seeing the results.