CHAMPAIGN — Brad Underwood’s avoidance of all things recruiting-rankings related isn’t a secret. The Illinois coach has long stressed fit over stars.
Geoff Alexander’s ability to find those type of players on the recruiting trail is a small — but clearly important — aspect behind Underwood promoting his assistant to the head coach to assistant coach last week.
Alexander’s previous assistant coaching stops necessitated fit over stars. Idaho State wasn’t plucking the best players from every class. Neither were Eastern Illinois and Evansville.
And that’s where Alexander honed his abilities as a recruiter.
“He’s a tremendous, tremendous evaluator,” Underwood said of his newest assistant coach — albeit one with a relationship that dates back more than two decades. “That’s something that not everybody has. It’s easy to look at an internet ranking and say, ‘Oh, he runs really fast and jumps really high,’ and put a star by it. To actually find guys that are really good players and fit? That’s the art right there, and Geoff has that.”
Alexander has natural recruiting ties to the state of Illinois given his own playing career at Lincoln High School and Western Illinois University, along with his dad, Neil, being a Hall of Fame coach at Lincoln. The younger Alexander’s recruiting connections grew when he became a coach, and starting his Division I run at Idaho State in 2007 meant expanding his base.
“It was more regional based, recruiting was then,” Alexander said. “Now, being in Idaho, we didn’t really have a backyard there. We had to find areas, our contacts, and go to our strengths.”
Alexander developed strong connections in Memphis, Tenn., during his time in Pocatello, Idaho, which served him well during his five seasons at Evansville from 2012-17. Alexander also started developing international contacts while at Idaho State, and the Bengals had four international players on the roster — two from Poland and one apiece from Lithuania and Brazil — by his final season.
Evansville also recruited international players during Alexander’s time working for Marty Simmons. Europe was the primary source, but the Purple Aces were also able to land players originally from Nigeria and Ivory Coast.
Alexander’s best get at Evansville was big man Egidijus Mockevicius. The 6-foot-10, 225-pound center out of Vilnius, Lithuania, was a Missouri Valley Conference All-Freshman Team selection in 2012-13, and Simmons credited Alexander for his continued development. Mockevicius left Evansville as the program’s all-time leading rebounder, leading the NCAA at 14 per game as a senior in the 2015-16 season, and was the 2016 MVC Defensive Player of the Year.
“Geoff is very, very, very connected abroad in Europe — probably more so than any guy that we’ve had or that I’ve been associated with in my Division I time as a head coach,” Underwood said. “He’s wired in a lot of places over there. That fits our pieces of the puzzle. Having guys from abroad will be something we continue to dive into.”
Illinois has had multiple international players in the past four seasons. The 2021-22 roster alone will feature four Puerto Rican guards in Andre Curbelo, Alfonso Plummer, RJ Melendez and walk-on Edgar Padilla Jr. in addition to Belgian forward Benjamin Bosmans-Verdonk and, depending on his NBA draft decision, Jamaican center Kofi Cockburn.
The Illini have also relied heavily on guys like Andres Feliz (Dominican Republic) and Giorgi Bezhanishvili (Georgia) in their rebuild process the past four years.
“I’ve been in the international market for 20 years — ever since I first started this,” Alexander said. “The European market is very, very intriguing with the skill level and size of those guys. With where our brand is now, we’re going to continue to stay heavily in that market.
“I think systematically they’re a really good fit for what we do — the skill set, the size, the length. The way they’re brought up in their clubs over there, it’s impressive. They’ve been playing at high levels with national teams and all that. They’ve got great IQ. Those are the type of guys that really fit what we do. Not saying it’s going to be exclusive in some of those areas, but we’ll get deep into those with the skill level those guys have.”
Alexander’s connections — either in Europe or throughout the state of Illinois — come down to the relationships he has built in the last two decades. He’ll bring new contacts and resources in the same way as both fellow new assistant coach Chester Frazier and whomever Underwood hires to fill the remaining assistant coach vacancy will.
Underwood lauded Alexander’s ability to communicate, which includes being a “fantastic listener.” Simmons saw first-hand for five years how Alexander could put that to use on the recruiting trail.
“Personality wise, I think that’s a lot,” Simmons said. “Just relationships. He had already established a network with coaches and is just very well respected. That’s who he is. He’s an honest, trustworthy, hard-working guy and players, families, AAU coaches, they respect that. He’s diligent in his contact and communication. He did an outstanding job. The willingness to go anywhere at any time. He was in Lithuania. He traveled around the world when he was with us. He just has a burning desire to be successful.”