CHAMPAIGN – When the roof was leaking and the Illini basketball house was in need of major repairs late last season, AD Josh Whitman stepped in and decided what the project needed was a new homeowner.
But just like the do-it-yourself renovation shows on television, a fixer-upper generally isn’t whipped into shape without uncovering unexpected plumbing and electrical issues and a couple of hidden snags that need emergency attention and strain the budget.
The plan is that one of these days a big reveal will show an Illini basketball home that sparkles with Underwood’s redesign.
Now, though, the hard hats are still on and contractors are at work.
Wednesday signaled a major step forward in the project and if Illinois ends its four-year NCAA Tournament drought this season, as Underwood is predicting will happen, the arrival of Mark Alstork figures to be a big part of the transformation.
Alstork said Wednesday he will transfer to Illinois after averaging 19 points a game last season for Wright State of the Horizon League. The 6-5 graduate transfer will have just one year of eligibility but he can play immediately and you can write his name in ink in Underwood’s first Illini starting lineup.
Underwood is moving fast and perhaps the decisiveness of his movements are proving to be unsettling to some. Two recruits who signed to play for Groce requested and were granted releases to look elsewhere.
Big man Jeremiah Tilmon has found his home, signing on with Missouri. Javon Pickett is still shopping.
One Illini player, D.J. Williams, also decided to leave the program, swayed by the combination of limited playing time for Groce and an uncertain future with Underwood.
And now there are rumors that shooting guard Jalen Coleman-Lands might feel he’s less vital now that Underwood is loading up on guards who can score.
Incoming freshman Mark Smith averaged 22 points a season as a senior at Edwardsville.
Another freshman guard, Trent Frazier, averaged 27.6 a game down in Wellington, Fla.
Da’Monte Williams, yet another freshman guard, was off to a great start at Peoria Manual until a knee injury ended his senior season early. And there’s still holdover guard Aaron Jordan in the mix.
Underwood had three weeks of practice with the returning players, which was enough time to form his own opinions. While he praised Leron Black, Kipper Nichols, Michael Finke and Te’Jon Lucas, and while he has gushed in anticipation of Smith’s arrival, maybe Coleman-Lands felt not hearing his own name was a sign to look elsewhere.
That matter has yet to be resolved and however it turns out, the roster is taking shape.
A big man remains a desperate need, if only on the defensive end. Finke is 6-10, but it would not play to his strengths to ask him to be the primary post defender.
Expect another addition to be announced soon.
But look for a lineup that includes three guards and a forward who can shoot.
That starting lineup could be Alstork, Smith, Lucas, Black and either Finke or the yet-to-be-acquired big man.
Remember: Oklahoma State led the nation in points scored within the first seven seconds of the shot clock. That means Underwood wants his team to be the quickest transition team in America, led by a stable of fast-moving guards who can dribble, penetrate and shoot.
That should suit Alstork perfectly. It’s what he does. And the style seems tailored for Smith, Frazier and Lucas.
The renovation is not yet complete and, to be truthful, we’re taking about a first-year renovation, not what this program will look like three years down the road.
That’s when you’ll look up and realize the new Underwood home looks very little like the place that underwent a fairly significant makeover in March of 2017.