On Monday, the Fighting Illini’s coveted-2017-recruit turned regressing-freshman, Mark Smith, announced he would be leaving the program. The school has not put any restrictions on his release, but absent an unexpected waiver from the NCAA, he will have to sit out the 2018-19 season.
While disappointing, the news should not be a shocker to Illini faithful as last year’s Mr. Basketball in Illinois had seen a diminishing role starting in conference play back in December, with production only briefly resurfacing prior to the resumption of B1G play in January. Smith had not cracked double-digits in scoring since this Illini season’s lone moment of glory versus Mizzou.
In hindsight, it’s perhaps a blessing that Smith didn’t heat up even briefly in conference play, since his departure is only disrupting momentum fans wish Brad Underwood had started. Smith was considered a significant get for the first year coach. They lost Jeremiah Tilmon to Mizzou while ridding themselves of John Groce’s next-next-next-4-out monotony, but had at least snagged Smith and Trent Frazier, with even more highly regarded Ayo Dosunmu waiting in the wings.
As has been the rule rather than the exception for the last 10-plus years of Illini revenue sports, the plan did not go as hoped.
What’s past is past, and if Brad Underwood is to right the ship in Champaign, as many non-delusional people think he more likely-than-not will, Smith cannot come to be known as “the one that got away” in years three, four and beyond of Underwood’s tenure.
The lesson is easy to identify – don’t assume any one specific recruit will pan out, instead load up on every scrap of talent the trail will yield. Putting this lesson into practice is the hard part, only made more difficult by the fact that blue chips stay with a program for shorter, often 1-year, periods, than the last time the Illini were contending in the B1G.
Illinois’s glory years are too distant for direct memory with recruits, but the facilities, competition, and in-state talent make B1G contention a reasonable long-term benchmark.
While not a lot is leaving the Illini (beyond Smith, just Mark Alstork) so far, the next few months could have major ramifications on the trajectory of the Underwood-rebuild.
Retention of Leron Black is priority number one. He made significant development as a scorer, and was the only bright spot beside Trent Frazier on a team that went 4-14 in conference. If Black senses another season theme of “development”, testing the grad transfer market could be the prudent play for the fifth-year senior still seeking an NCAA Tournament appearance.
Whether or not Black goes, the transfer market does both giveth and taketh away, and the former is now more important than expected. Getting a skilled big to play the 4 or 5 is the only way Underwood can hope to spin next year as one with legitimate B1G credibility and tourney expectations. Let Smith be the exception, Trent and Ayo the rule.
WATCH: Brad Underwood speaks for 1st time as Illini head coach
The University of Illinois took less than one day to get their man, as Brad Underwood bolted from Oklahoma State a day after his now-ex team was ousted from the NCAA tournament.
Underwood won’t formally be introduced until a noon CT press conference on Monday, but he was already in Champaign on Saturday. That meant his first official interview took place as well.
It was all caught on camera and here is what Underwood and Josh Whitman had to say regarding the hire.
Whitman wastes little time, picks Brad Underwood to head Illini basketball program
Brad Underwood was coaching the Oklahoma State Cowboys just about this time yesterday. Fast forward 24 hours and Josh Whitman got his next head coach thanks to the Pokes loss to Michigan.
According to reports, Underwood has agreed to terms to become the next head coach at the University of Illinois.
“I am excited to welcome Brad Underwood, his wife Susan, and their three children to the Fighting Illini family,” Whitman said in a press release. “In searching for a new coach, we were looking for a proven winner who would build upon our proud tradition while developing an unmistakable identity for Illinois Basketball.
“Brad’s teams play a fast, aggressive style and show unyielding toughness. They have a tremendous energy that I believe will ignite the Orange Krush and our fans to once again make State Farm Center one of the most intimidating venues in all of college basketball.”
Underwood has a long reputation of building quality programs. He took Stephen F. Austin to three straight NCAA tournaments before taking the Oklahoma State job this past year.
So, why leave the Pokes after just one season? It appears his ties to the state of Illinois were a huge factor in this quick of a jump.
“Coaching basketball at the University of Illinois is a once-in-lifetime opportunity,” Underwood said. “The players, fans and administration at Oklahoma State have been absolutely incredible, and I want to thank them for the support they’ve given me and my family over the last year. However, during my time at Western Illinois, I always saw the Illinois coaching job as one of the truly best in the nation.”
Underwood was an assistant coach at Western Illinois from 1992-2003 before taking his second head coaching gig at Daytona Beach Community College.
There are also reports of a strained relationship between Underwood and Oklahoma State athletic director Mike Holder.
Underwood will be introduced to the media on Monday at noon CT and we will have live coverage.
Matt Bollant let go as head of Illini women’s basketball program
Matt Bollant was once one of the hottest names in women’s basketball coaching circles. After leading an NAIA powerhouse, he took the Green Bay Phoenix to new height too.
That reputation made him a hot commodity to major programs looking to turn things around. Instead, the hire was nothing but a mess for the Illinois Fighting Illini and the mess was finally cleaned up by athletic director Josh Whitman on Tuesday afternoon.
“I would like to thank Matt Bollant and his staff for their many contributions to Illinois Basketball during the last five years,” Whitman said in a statement released by the athletic department. “They have faced great adversity, both on and off the court, yet have greeted every day with unyielding optimism and unmatched effort. They have maintained the well-being and personal growth of the student-athletes under their charge as their foremost priority and have been exceptional ambassadors for Illinois Athletics in our community and in basketball circles across the country.”
Still, Bollant followed the same path as his men’s counterpart and simply couldn’t get the program to become a consistent winner on the court. Bollant leaves the program having averaged just 12 wins per season. He leaves the program having gone 61-94 overall and 22-62 in Big Ten play.
The first season in Champaign was promising, as the Illini finished fifth in the Big Ten and made it to the WNIT tournament. Illinois won 19 games that season and also reached the quarterfinals of the WNIT.
However, there was no progress made and the Illini failed to reach the postseason for the next four years straight. Illinois hit rock bottom this season, finishing just 9-22 overall and 3-13 in Big Ten play.
Additionally, there were messy allegations by ex-players about language and coaching techniques. Some also alleged racial favoritism on the team.
That clearly wasn’t good enough for Whitman and he noted that in his statement to the public.
“Without question, the program is in a better place today than it was when they arrived,” said Whitman. “Our expectations for women’s basketball, however, match those that we have for many of our other sport programs: to compete at the highest level, year in and year out. I am excited to embrace a future for Illinois Women’s Basketball where we realize the program’s full – and virtually unlimited – potential.”
Bollant had one year left on his deal and the press release notes that he will receive his full $450,000 salary per the terms of his contract.
It will be interesting to see the direction Whitman takes with this hire, but it will be a national search to say the least.
John Groce is actually out as Illini basketball coach
What many have been calling for finally happened — the University of Illinois has relieved John Groce of his duties as men’s basketball head coach.
Groce undoubtedly turned around the program academically and socially, something that made this decision difficult to make for athletic director Josh Whitman.
“I want to thank John Groce and his staff for their tireless efforts over these past five years,” Whitman said in a press release announcing Groce’s firing. “In many ways, John is a model leader. He exudes optimism and tackles every day with unbelievable energy. He has the highest integrity. He has been an active presence in our community and a strong public ambassador for Illinois Basketball.”
Ultimately it was the record on the court that did Groce in. After all, coaches are hired to ensure their teams win games. All the other stuff is just part of the equation that gets weighed against a win-loss record.
“Under his leadership, regrettably, we were not able to sustain the level of competitive excellence that we expect at the University of Illinois,” Whitman continued. “But that should do nothing to detract from the many wonderful things John has done on behalf of Illinois Basketball during his tenure. We wish John, Allison, and their three children nothing but the best, and we thank his staff and their families as well for their many contributions to our program. All will be missed.”
Groce failed in that win-loss category in a big way, becoming the first head coach since Gene Bartow in the mid 1970’s to have a losing record in the Big Ten during his career at Illinois.
As for what is next, Whitman has a plan in place for the immediate and long term future of the program.
According to the release, a national search for the next head coach will begin immediately. In the meantime, assistant coach Jamall Walker has been elevated to the role of interim head coach.