Keeping Class of 2017 intact early concern for Underwood
CHAMPAIGN — Tim Finke picked up a scholarship offer from John Groce and Illinois back in July 2015.
Well before the rest of college basketball started to pay attention to the younger brother of current Illinois forward Michael Finke.
Tim Finke has picked up more than a dozen high-major offers since. One of those, however, wasn’t from Oklahoma State or Brad Underwood, the new Illinois coach hired away from the Cowboys on Saturday after only one season in Stillwater.
“We don’t know Coach Underwood at all,” said Jeff Finke, Tim and Michael’s father and the boys’ basketball coach at Champaign Central, where Tim just finished his junior season.
“I’ve watched his teams, with Stephen F. Austin in the NCAA tournament last year, and then I saw Oklahoma State play a couple times this season,” Jeff Finke continued. “It’s an exciting offense, and it looks like they play defense really hard. It looks like fun basketball, but I don’t know much more about him. He has never, or his staff, reached out and recruited Tim. We don’t know that he knows who Tim is.”
That will likely change in the coming days. One of the main priorities for Underwood, among many tasks he’ll have to do once he gets acclimated to Illinois, is ensuring the 2017 class stays intact.
Jeremiah Tilmon, Da’Monte Williams, Javon Pickett and Trent Frazier all signed last November with Groce in charge.
Early indications are that Illinois interim coach Jamall Walker will likely stay as part of Underwood’s staff at Illinois. Walker was a key component in Tilmon’s recruitment, helping persuade the five-star big man from East St. Louis to sign with the Illini.
“Jamall is a really good guy,” said Deon Thomas, the Illini’s all-time leading scorer and current Illini Sports Network radio analyst. “He’s done a really good job recruiting Tilmon, and he has a connection to that St. Louis area. If you can keep some people around (Underwood) that have some familiarity, that’ll help.”
Thomas said he considers South Carolina coach Frank Martin a mentor, as Underwood was an assistant coach at South Carolina and Kansas State under Martin. If Underwood were to ask Thomas to possibly join the Illini staff as an assistant coach, the Chicago Simeon graduate is all for it.
“I’m an Illini through and through,” Thomas said. “Anything I can do to serve my institution, I’ll do.”
City/Suburban Hoops Report publisher Joe Henricksen, who has covered high school basketball in the state for more than two decades and has a keen grasp on the recruiting world, said the hire of Underwood was “one of the best hires Illinois could possibly get under the circumstances of what people’s expectations are for this hire.”
“What sets him apart from some of these other hires at this time of year is he’s got a track record,” Henricksen said. “It’s not just getting hot in the conference tournament and maybe winning a game or two in the NCAA tournament. He brings an identity and a presence because of his style of play and his recruiting efforts. I don’t know if Illinois could have done any better.”
Even though Underwood hasn’t coached in Illinois since 2003 — he was an assistant coach at Western Illinois from 1992 until then — Henricksen doesn’t think that’ll hinder his recruiting efforts in the greater Chicagoland area.
“He’s going to have to make inroads with Chicago and build some relationships, but from everybody that I know in the coaching business, he’s going to have no problem doing that,” Henricksen said. “A lot of people and contacts in the business speak unbelievable of the guy. I talked to probably three Big 10 coaching staffs in the few hours after his hiring and all of them were like, ‘That’s a big-time hire.’”
Time will tell just how big, but recruits and their families are already starting to evaluate what this latest coaching move by Illinois means for the future.
Either way, don’t expect Tim Finke to commit to Illinois — or any other program — in the coming days or weeks.
“The whole process for Tim has been not deciding until at least after the summer of his rising senior year when AAU finishes because coaching staffs, unfortunately, are somewhat fluid,” Jeff Finke said. “He wanted to wait until he was a senior, regardless of how fond he was of a program, and with the hundreds of players that leave every year, rosters are so fluid, too.
“We’ll continue to evaluate and see if Coach Underwood and his staff have an interest in Tim. Obviously, Tim is going to listen, as he has to many. For Tim, it’s really about relationships and fit. He’s developed some great relationships with some great staffs, so we’ll just keep evaluating it a day at a time.”