Afternoon everybody. Fall sports might be gearing up to start at Illinois, but you know me. It's always basketball season (even though I'm dow…
CHAMPAIGN — Illinois men’s basketball landed in the top 10 for four-star 2020 Canadian wing Keon Ambrose-Hylton on Monday evening.
Tuesday afternoon the Illini officially missed out on five-star 2020 point guard Daishen Nix, who committed to UCLA and first-year coach Mick Cronin. Tuesday night saw Class of 2020 Morgan Park point guard Marcus Watson Jr. commit to Wake Forest.
Recruiting never stops. How Illinois recruits, though, has changed even in the two-plus years Brad Underwood has coached the program.
The Illini will enter the 2019-20 season having used their entire complement of 13 scholarships — a first for Underwood. They also didn’t fill up until this month. First came sit one season, play two transfers Austin Hutcherson and Jacob Grandison. Lincoln grad Jermaine Hamlin made it 13 — well, technically 14 — on Tuesday. His addition puts fellow 2019 big man Bernard Kouma’s status into even more uncertain territory.
Kouma signed with Illinois in May, and Underwood said Monday he still expects the Republic of Chad native (via Our Saviour Lutheran in New York) to be an Illini. While Kouma is on the Illinois roster, he has yet to be cleared by the NCAA eligibility center.
“I don’t think it’s really that unconventional anymore,” Underwood said filling out his roster in the week before the academic year starts. “I think it’s more of the norm.”
Illinois isn’t the only team still adding to its roster in the late summer months. Oregon picked up commitments from five-star center N’Faly Dante and four-star guard Addison Patterson (an Illini target) in the last week after both players reclassified to 2019.
“You start looking at the way things are happening with the NBA and guys declaring,” Underwood said. “With late transfers. With kids reclassifying. You throw all that together, and it almost pays to have scholarships open and be available at the end.”
The “who” of Illinois basketball recruiting has also evolved in Underwood’s tenure. High school prospects are still part of the Illini board. Underwood has, in fact, offered more than 200 prep players in the 2018-2023 classes. But that’s not the only — or seemingly right now the primary — market for roster building.
The mostly-under-the-radar addition has been one of Underwood’s biggest building blocks, landing guys like Giorgi Bezhanishvili and Andres Feliz last spring and basically the rest of the 2019 class outside of Kofi Cockburn this offseason.
“I’ve said that the world becomes — especially the basketball world becomes — a pretty small place,” Underwood said. “We have so much access in technology. We’ve had coaches in Greece. We’ve had daily reports coming from U16s as they were going on around the world. I think it’s about connections and utilizing them and figuring out what you need.”
A clear need this offseason was a power forward athletic and physical enough to handle other players of that ilk in the Big Ten but also able to stretch the floor offensively. Underwood and Co. believe they found that player in Benjamin Bosmans-Verdonk. The 6-foot-8 Belgian forward’s June signing was one of those surprise under-the-radar additions.
“We were looking for that,” Underwood said. “We didn’t panic there.”
Wing depth was also clearly a focus with the additions of Hutcherson, formerly of Division III Wesleyan University in Connecticut, and Grandison, who started his college career at Holy Cross.
“We stayed away from the grad transfer for a reason this year and got two guys we feel great about in terms of two guys we’re sitting out,” Underwood said. “That’s a great fit for what our program needs right now.”
Underwood has regularly praised his assistants for the work they’ve put in on the recruiting front. Both Orlando Antigua and Jamall Walker recruited in Greece at different international tournaments.
“Our staff works, man,” Underwood said. “We watch a lot of film. We check out a lot of guys, and we ask the right questions. It’s easy to go identify four-star and five-star guys. Last time I checked, they’re not always winning national championships.”