CHAMPAIGN — The way Baylor coach Scott Drew constructed his men’s basketball roster caught Illinois coach Brad Underwood’s attention.
Drew tapped nearly every resource, every avenue, in building the Bears into a top-five team come the end of the 2019-20 season. That run included a 23-game winning streak and plenty of time as the No. 1 team in the country.
Underwood called Drew’s roster construction an “unbelievable model.” Leading scorer Jared Butler might have wound up in Waco, Texas, following the traditional high school recruit route, but three other Baylor starters in MaCio Teague, Davion Mitchell and Freddie Gillespie all sat a year on the bench after transferring from UNC Asheville, Auburn and Division III Carleton College (Minn.), respectively.
Baylor has two more sit-out transfers waiting in the wings after guard Adam Flagler (Presbyterian) and forward Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua (UNLV) spent a year in residency doing nothing but learning Drew’s system and adjusting to a new university, new campus and new team.
So does Illinois. Underwood added Austin Hutcherson and Jacob Grandison last August with the express purpose of having the pair ready to contribute on the wing. For the 2020-21 season. That choice eight months ago now lets the Illini absorb the loss of sophomore guards Alan Griffin (to Syracuse) and Tevian Jones (still in the transfer portal) with a bit more ease.
“There was a plan in place a year ago, I think, as you try to continue to build and project the best you can,” Underwood said. “To have those two guys go through a year of practice was huge.
“There were times in practice on the scout team they were a handful. They’re older. They both gained weight.
“That’s allowed us to be in a position we don’t have to panic. We don’t have to feel like we have to go out and just take a piece that’s a question mark. We’re in the position now it’s about our culture and it’s about the locker room and fitting in. If it’s a grad transfer, making sure they’re coming here for the right reasons. We can be pretty selective. I love the concept of sitting out guys.”
Underwood has added both sit-out transfers and graduate transfers during his tenure at Illinois.
Hutcherson and Grandison were the first of the former. The latter saw the addition of Wright State guard Mark Alstork for the 2017-18 season and Kent State center Adonis De La Rosa in 2018-19. Underwood understands there are pros and cons to both transfer avenues. He also realizes the challenge can be tougher for grad transfers.
“When you start studying the grad transfer history, I think there’s been three grad transfers — since grad transfers happened — that have played in a Final Four,” Underwood said. “I think there’s been five or six that played in an Elite Eight. Somewhere in those numbers.
“You start looking at the productivity some of these guys had. There’s a lot put on a grad transfer — learning a brand new system, learning a new team. If guys transfer up a level, it is a very steep challenge. We’re playing at the highest level in the best league in the country in front of the best crowds in the country in the toughest environments. All of that can be a lot for some guys. We’re pretty selective there.”
Having Hutcherson and Grandison as ready replacements for Griffin and Jones allows Underwood the flexibility to be selective. Both have the versatility to play as many as three different positions — Hutcherson 1-3 and Grandison 2-4 — so there’s not a rush to try and add a piece on the wing in response to two transfers out.
Kofi Cockburn’s decision to declare for the NBA draft on Tuesday and Ayo Dosunmu’s pending decision in that regard adds back a bit of uncertainty to the 2020-21 Illinois roster.
The matching uncertainty with the remaining NBA season and subsequent draft could lengthen the period of time where Underwood won’t be entirely sure how many scholarships he’ll have to fill.
Mix in the undecided nature of the one-time transfer waiver that saw the vote on the matter pushed to June, and there’s plenty up in the air when it comes to roster construction for 2020-21.
Underwood’s approach, though, likely won’t change.
“We don’t know if some of these kids who are freshmen and sophomores who are leaving if they’re eligible next year,” he said. “We don’t have any clue with what this one-time transfer waiver is going to look like next year or if this gets pushed back another year.
“We’ve heard of some schools out there that are calling some of these grad transfers and some of these kids and saying, ‘You have 24 hours to make a decision or we’re out.’ There’s so many kids in the portal they can do that.
“We’re not doing that. We’re being very, very selective, and we’re in a great position in our recruiting to not have to take a chance. We have to make sure we have the right fit for our locker room and the right fit for the pieces on the court. If that fit doesn’t happen, we’re great. I’m excited about the possibilities that are out there, but we’ll continue to keep digging in our background checks and keep checking the transfer portal.”