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Robin Scholz/The News-Gazette Illinois assistant coach Orlando Antigua in a NCAA basketball game at State Farm Center in Champaign on Saturday, Dec. 14, 2019.Robin Scholz/The News-Gazette Illinois assistant coach Orlando Antigua in a NCAA basketball game at State Farm Center in Champaign on Saturday, Dec. 14, 2019.

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Back in the 1960-61 season, when Brooklyn’s 6-foot-8 Bill Burwell joined Dave Downey, Bill Small and the Illini gang, he was the first non-Illinoisan listed as a basketball starter dating back to World War II.

Or the first in 16 years.

Later on, when Cory Bradford enrolled from Memphis, Tenn., in 1998, his first three seasons spotlighted him as the only non-Illinoisan as a “regular” over a nine-year period.

Fact is, in the 20th century, only a few notable outsiders — stars like Tal Brody, Nick Weatherspoon, Derek Harper — were spotted in among the Illinois natives who dominated the UI court for those 100 years. The 1943 Whiz Kids, unbeaten in the Big Ten, featured five in-state products. The 1989 Flyin’ Illini reached the Final Four with home-staters Nick Anderson, Ken Battle, Stephen Bardo, Lowell Hamilton, Kendall Gill, Marcus Liberty and Larry Smith. The 37-2 team in 2005 had just one starter from beyond the state line, Texan Deron Williams.

You might say times have changed. Brad Underwood’s squad is constructed around five products with New York and New Jersey backgrounds, and it’ll be six when backcourt star Andre Curbelo joins the team next fall. And Curbelo (born in Puerto Rico and playing in Long Island) will hold the UI foreign-born number at four even as Andres Feliz (Dominican Republic) completes his eligibility.

Let’s look at Antigua

What’s behind this drastic change that has suddenly uplifted Illini basketball?

We begin with UI assistant coach Orlando Antigua. Soon to be 47, he is a native-born Dominican, was All-New York City as a prep in the Bronx, was all-rookie and a solid performer for Pitt in the Big East, played semi-pro ball in Puerto Rico along with Curbelo’s father (they hung out together), coached the Dominican National team, played seven years with the Harlem Globetrotters and served as coach-recruiter for John Calipari at Memphis and Kentucky before spending two-plus seasons as head coach at South Florida.

Put simply, when it comes to getting a foot in the door on the East Coast or in Florida, Antigua is your man. He knows EVERYBODY in the eastern marketplace after three decades developing relationships.

This isn’t to say that he’s a one-man gang. A lot more, including the deep involvement of Underwood, goes into beating out top programs for blue-chip talent. The completion of these recruiting deals can be more complex than fans can imagine.

But it’s working, and with minimal help from the state (thanks, Morgan Park, for Ayo Dosunmu and, hopefully, Adam Miller). Josh Whitman, with strong budget allocations, supports the net-spreading system that comes along at a critical time when (1) downstate basketball has faded, (2) St. Louis relationships are raw, (3) Chicagoland talent has hit a down cycle with star players often moving elsewhere, (4) state lines in any direction, and particularly out to the immediate east, continue to be a stone walls and (5) traveling AAU teams have overtaken high schools in the marketplace.

Six degrees of separation

So let’s get back to Antigua in his job of providing Underwood with an entry into the East Coast. Look at these connections.

— Feliz was coached by Antigua’s brother on a 16-and-under Dominican team. Feliz committed to Antigua at South Florida before academic transfer problems caused him to enter junior college in Florida. Antigua jumped back in on him after joining Underwood at Illinois.

— Sophomore Alan Griffin’s dad, Toronto Raptors assistant coach Adrian Griffin, attended Seton Hall and played against Antigua in college. Adding to the family familiarity, UI aide Jamall Walker grew up in the same city, Wichita, Kan., as Adrian ... and Underwood knew Adrian for years. In addition, Alan was a member of Kofi Cockburn’s AAU team.

— Cockburn played his first three years of high school basketball at Christ the King in Queens, which is in the same Catholic League where Antigua once starred. Antigua had followed him since the eighth grade in Jamaica and was familiar with his youth coaches.

And there’s more

— Redshirting Austin Hutcherson is “a New York kid who wanted to move up from Division III (Wesleyan) and my friends reached out last summer to see if we were interested,” Antigua said. “We watched film and did the background work, and decided his skill set translates.”

— Redshirting Jacob Grandison had a California background before attending Holy Cross in New York, and “was basically recruited by Chin Coleman through his West Coast relationships,” Antigua said.

— In the case of Giorgi Bezhanishvili, the story goes that Underwood and Coleman were checking on another player going against Bezhanishvili’s Patrick School (N.J.) when he caught their eye. Underwood favored him even though Bezhanishvili averaged less than 10 points in high school.

So when you see that Illinois is involved with a 6-10 junior from Connecticut (Mac Etienne), you can bet there is a background relationship. Thanks to Antigua, the UI staff currently has better and deeper connections in the East than (dare we say?) Chicago.

Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at ltate@news-gazette.com