CHAMPAIGN — Three months into the name, image and likeness era in college athletics, and several Illinois men’s basketball players have taken advantage of opportunities to benefit on, well, their name, image and likeness.
But Brad Underwood isn’t keeping track of each and every deal his players make. The Illinois coach isn’t following Trent Frazier and his growing collection of endorsements within the Champaign-Urbana community other than knowing his super senior point guard is taking advantage of multiple opportunities on that front. The same way he’s keeping a distance from the deals Andre Curbelo and Kofi Cockburn makes.
“I choose to not know,” Underwood said during his appearance at the Esquire on ‘Monday Night SportsTalk’ on WDWS 1400-AM. “I don’t really want to know. All I’m trying to do is manage time — theirs.”
That comes down to Underwood and his coaching staff making sure the players realize they have responsibilities both academically for themselves and athletically on the court for their team. Three months in, NIL has become one of the most important topics of conversation in the sport.
“It’s ever changing,” Underwood said. “It’s not something that we ever have a day when we don’t discuss.”
That everyday discussion point is related directly to the effect NIL opportunities have had on recruiting.
“Is it the biggest thing that’s out there?” Underwood asked, rhetorically. “Yes, because it is controlling all of recruiting. Every piece of everything we do in the recruiting game is about, ‘How much money can I make in NIL?’ It’s changing constantly, and we’re learning more as more and more people get things established for these young people.
“Michigan State just announced last (month) they’ve got a company (United Wholesale Mortgage run by former walk-on turned billionaire Matt Ishbia) giving every (football and men’s basketball) player $500 a month all season long. There’s hundreds of those. It’s all becoming a huge factor and becoming a big piece of what recruiting is going to look like in the future.”
While recruiting never really stops in college basketball, it kicked into overdrive four months ago when the pandemic-extended dead period that began in March 2020 ended. Coaches get back on the road recruiting and host prospects again on campus starting June 1.
The Illinois coaching staff did both. A lot of both.
The Illini had multiple visitors on campus in June, including eventual Class of 2022 commits Sencire Harris and Jayden Epps.
They also spent time in high school gyms across the country for multiple evaluation periods, which extended into July.
“We literally worked every single day of June,” Underwood said. “I’ve never had a busier offseason from the recruiting perspective. We felt like everything was rushed getting young kids on campus on unofficial visits. We could go out — they opened up recruiting periods on the weekend in June; there were three of them — so we were going out Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday all while we were trying to coach our team on campus during the week and have unofficials in. It was a very busy June.”
Not that the fall has granted Underwood and his assistant coaches a reprieve. Campus visits restarted the final weekend of August because of Illinois football’s Week 0 game against Nebraska and are ongoing. The Illini basketball coaches also made several in-home visits in September.
Underwood and Co. had a quintet of in-state recruits visit campus this past weekend. St. Rita forward James Brown — perhaps the state’s top player in the Class of 2024 — made the trip with teammates/classmates Morez Johnson and Jaedin Reyna. Lemont sophomore Nojus Indrusaiitis and St. Ignatius junior Richard Barron also visited.
Underwood, for one, is relieved in-person recruiting has returned.
“Recruiting via streaming is impossible,” he said. “We can all tell if they run, jump, dunk (or) make a shot. What you can’t tell is the personal side and the character pieces. How they interact with teammates. How they interact with an official when he makes a bad call. How they handle coaching if they make a mistake. Those are all the really important things that are so vital to us when we go evaluate. On the other side of that is now we can have conversations that build relationships — one-on-one with their families and with them individually.”
The transfer portal is part of the equation, too. Underwood likened it to “speed dating.” After more than 1,800 players entered the portal this past offseason, names are already starting to pop again. Tyler Underwood, newly hired this summer as director of recruiting and scouting, is Illinois’ portal watcher.
“I’m going to continue to recruit high school guys,” Underwood said, again stressing he views Illinois as a developmental program. “I will fill in if there’s a need. … It’s far from a science — and I don’t know what that looks like — but we’re going to continue to try to do it with high school kids.”