Dating to the past century, the Illini have seldom been in the forefront of sweeping basketball movements.
But they caught the latest train, thanks to Brad Underwood bringing aboard Orlando Antigua and his powerful connection to the burgeoning international market.
It’s evident everywhere. More than 100 foreign stars proliferate the NBA, from Spain’s Pau Gasol to “Greek Freak” Giannis Antetokounmpo.
Competing with the Illini’s Ayo Dosunmu in the upcoming NBA are legitimate prospects from Australia, Turkey, Spain, Lithuania and Italy, not to mention those like Franz Wagner, who left Germany to compete for Michigan.
And not to mention non-college stars like Jalen Green and Jonathan Kuminga from the G League.
Leaders in the transformation at Illinois were European Giorgi Bezhanishvili and Andres Feliz, who hailed from the same Dominican Republic as Antigua. The newest transfer, Alfonso Plummer, calls Puerto Rico home, as does the incoming freshman with the biggest “upside,” in 6-foot-7 Ramses “RJ” Melendez.
When they line up next season, the offense will be directed by Puerto Rican playmaker Andre Curbelo, and alongside will be Floridian Trent Frazier, whose mother is Puerto Rican.
Meanwhile, we must chew our fingernails down waiting to hear the decision of Jamaican center Kofi Cockburn, who sits at No. 54 in Sam Vecenie’s latest mock draft.
Antigua leaves Illinois in a strong position going forward. Now, we’ll see if Underwood can sustain Antigua’s groundwork in this new movement, and whether Illinois can be a leader in an even-newer movement of hundreds of immediately eligible transfers (like still-available Tre Mitchell from Massachusetts).
➜ Illini freshman Adam Miller picked a hot spot in joining Missouri transfer Xavier Pinson at LSU. Tigers coach Will Wade is at the forefront of bribery investigations (charged with offering impermissible benefits on at least 11 occasions), and might be barred from the NCAA tournament if the results ever come in.
After winning the football title, LSU withdrew from postseason play this past season as a “commitment to compliance.” There are even more problems up the ladder.
➜ Players come and go at rapid rates, and some wander back home, but who can guess the lineups for Illinois’ annual foes Missouri and Minnesota?
Both showed nine players departing in recent days. As did DePaul. And how does Cincinnati survive with players leaving and the coach (John Brannen) fired?
Rutgers served Illinois a stinging 91-88 defeat in December, and seemed to be gathering long-overdue steam. However, after winning its first NCAA tournament game in 38 years, and then playing Houston to a 91-88 thriller, coach Steve Pikiell has seen center Myles Johnson transfer to UCLA, Montez Mathis pick St. John’s and key members Geo Baker, Ron Harper Jr. and Jacob Young make pro or portal plans.
➜ Former Illini Alan Griffin averaged 13.3 points for Syracuse but was in Jim Boeheim’s late-season doghouse, and is now testing the waters for another possible move.
➜ With the receiver position wanting, Bret Bielema moved the top Illinois recruits from the 2019 class, Isaiah Williams and Marquez Beason, to an area where their speed and quickness should pay dividends when they become acclimated. Bielema was both truthful and direct in making more than a half-dozen position shifts this spring.
➜ While opening foe Nebraska will be without its leading tackler, Will Honas, and the Huskers’ top freshman in tight end Thomas Fidone — both out with knee injuries — the Illini completed 15 rugged days of drills without any injuries projected to carry into August.
Illinois linebackers coach Andy Buh said that three key backers who sat out the spring (Jake Hansen, Tarique Barnes and Khalan Tolson) actually lined up and shared time, taking one step on snaps this spring, so as to prepare them mentally for the fall.
➜ Running backs coach Cory Patterson, hired by Lovie Smith from Trinity Catholic in St. Louis in 2018, said he “took notes like a player in meetings” and “learned more about the nuances of football in the last few months than in the previous two years.”
➜ With Ohio State having canceled last November’s football date here, Illinois will go six years without playing the Buckeyes (next up in 2024). This matchup, however lopsided, was for decades the UI’s “biggest game” as they met every season from 1914 to 2002.
➜ COVID-19 has caused athletic departments everywhere to fall back on university financial support.
The University of Iowa, now led by President Barbara Wilson, faces tens of millions in pandemic-related losses and has nonetheless sent $50 million to its athletic department as a loan to be repaid.
But she leaves worse circumstances on this campus with the DIA receiving a similar 14-year loan of $33 million from the campus, more than half of which would be consumed by a reported $18 million in debt service on long-term borrowing for facilities.
➜ You’d think when athletes receive a sportsmanship award, it would signal a special closeness and loyalty for the university.
But no, basketball sportsmanship winners Al Durham (Indiana), CJ Fredrick (Iowa), Darryl Morsell (Maryland), Gabe Kalscheur (Minnesota) and John Harrar (Penn State) entered the portal (Harrar returned), and Michigan State’s Joshua Langford retired. Kalscheur attended the same high school as new Gopher coach Ben Johnson, but departed for Iowa State.
➜ Jerry Colangelo, completing his final year as director of the U.S. Olympic basketball team, says he has 68 players in a pool to draw from.
It is a task that could swing many directions because (1) lots of pro stars like LeBron James, Chris Paul and Stephen Curry are in their 30s, (2) the 16-team NBA playoffs run from May 22 to July 22 and (3) the Olympics in Tokyo run from July 23 through Aug. 8.
How many veteran pros will be nursing aches and pains, and will conclude that they need some time off?
➜ When it is reported that athletes have been “offered” by a school, what does it mean?
At last count, Rivals.com shows 40 preps are on the Illini’s 2022 basketball offer list, with two (AJ Storr and Reggie Bass) committed to Underwood. Of 120 players shown on the Illini’s football offer list, eight have committed to Bielema, including four from the state.
Many others on the list are committed elsewhere.