From the moment Brad Underwood was officially introduced as the head coach of Illinois basketball, his desire to re-establish Champaign as a destination for top local stars was evident.
"There's no question that this state produces a lot of elite talent. And we're the University of Illinois. Chicago, downstate, wherever, we want the best players in this state to come to this university. We're going to do everything we can to recruit those players.”
Fast-forward seven months and Underwood has done exactly that and more while accomplishing what his predecessor failed to do.
It started in April, when the Fighting Illini finally beat out the likes of Michigan State and Kentucky by signing four-star guard Mark Smith. The 6-foot-5 downstate product was hailed as an early litmus test for Underwood, and the end result amounted to that of a grand slam in his first at-bat.
On Thursday, Illinois made another massive statement by securing a verbal commitment from Chicago native and five-star prospect Ayo Dosunmu. The program’s most highly-touted recruit of the decade couldn’t have come at a better time.
The magnitude of recruiting victories is easy to overstate, especially when the actual team has struggled to win games. Except this is different. Illinois is dealing with two players that can immediately alter the course of its lifeless basketball program, and that isn’t something to take lightly.
Illinois (likely) landed back-to-back Mr. Basketball winners for the first time since 2010
Since the award’s inception in 1981, Illinois has only experienced this type of in-state run on three occasions: 1986-87 (Nick Anderson, Marcus Liberty), 1997-99 (Sergio McClain, Frank Williams, Brian Cook), and 2009-10 (Brandon Paul and Jereme Richmond).
Smith earned the 2017 honor after exploding for 21.9 points, 8.4 assists, and 8.2 rebounds per game during Edwardsville’s Class 4A Sectional Championship season.
It won’t be official until next March, however Dosunmu is absolutely the preseason favorite to take home the 2018 hardware. Last season, the Morgan Park standout finished in thirteenth place — by far the best for a non-senior — after averaging 22 points, 9 assists, and 7 rebounds per contest. An offseason later, Dosunmu will be near impossible to contain as the Mustangs prepare to defend their IHSA Class 3A crown.
This success, again, comes with exactly zero wins in the Brad Underwood era. The Fighting Illini have seen their fair share of misses this cycle, yet early returns on this staff’s recruiting ability have been promising, if nothing else. Imagine what could happen if the team starts to do well on the court.
The Fighting Illini will have two legitimate NBA prospects for the first time in years
Since 2006, Meyers Leonard (2012) is the lone Fighting Illini to be selected in the NBA Draft. Even worse? As Deron Williams continues to wait in free agency limbo, Brandon Paul is the only other active player representing Illinois in the association. Not ideal!
Luckily, Mark Smith and Ayo Dosunmu bring with them new hopes of ending this startling drought of NBA talent. I’ll qualify that statement by maintaining they aren’t exactly one-and-done lottery selections, but rather fringe first round picks down the line.
Smith, a former MLB Draft prospect, only seriously focused on basketball as a senior in high school, yet he managed scholarship offers from several marquee programs. That meteoric rise has reportedly continued since stepping foot on campus. Brad Underwood has even stated that, in his 30 years as a college coach, he’s never seen a player improve so quickly.
“[Smith] is very special. Physically, he looks the part of a 20-22 year old at 6-4, 220. It’s unfair for me to do it but I compare him to Jason Kidd; he has that type of athleticism. And his natural instincts are to lead. Once the game slows down and he understands what he wants to do, he will be a fantastic leader. He’s a guy you will see play all over the court. He will be a tough matchup because of that body.”
No matter how you slice it, Smith is going to be heavily featured on the offensive end making him a popular candidate for the Big Ten All-Freshman team. He’ll need to improve his dribbling and long-range shooting throughout his career in Champaign, however it seems unwise to bet against his capacity to do so at this point in time.
Underwood can’t publicly comment until the early signing period in November, but when he can, I’m sure he’ll mention that Dosunmu is his most NBA-ready recruit to date.
The dynamic floor general can take over both ends of the court in an instant. At 6-foot-4, Dosunmu excels at dribble penetration into the lane, where he’s displayed great finishing ability and vision. An unconventional shooting motion often leads to a low exit point, but his quick release has neutralized most of those mechanical concerns. Still, Dosunmu will need to work on the consistency of that jump shot while adding strength to his frame.
The bottom line is that, while Smith and Dosunmu have long ways to go, they both possess an amount of unteachable athleticism and size that NBA scouts desire.
Dosunmu and Smith are players that can open new recruiting doors for Illinois
Illinois was already a relatively attractive destination thanks to an up-and-coming coach and Big Ten exposure. Of course, an obstacle in the pursuit of past top talent was the caliber of the roster’s supporting cast. Now? The Orange and Blue have rectified that deficiency by adding two invaluable assets to their recruiting pitch.
The Fighting Illini would be wise to immediately take advantage by putting out feelers to new players — both committed and uncommitted — to determine if any under-the-radar interest exists. It’s impossible to speculate at this point, but don’t be surprised if Illinois gets involved with big names before the Spring signing period.
For players that we already know about, there remain at least two open scholarships. Front court recruiting has been an unfulfilled priority of late, and four-star center Bryan Penn-Johnson could be a player to keep an eye on; although Illinois hasn’t been regularly mentioned in that race, the Utah native took an unofficial visit to campus in late August.
Turning our attention a bit further down the road, Normal West’s Francis Okoro, a 2019 center, is another five-star recruit considering the Orange and Blue. Additionally, 2020 guard Adam Miller — one of Dosunmu’s teammates at Morgan Park — is shaping up to be one of the top players in the nation. Expect Illinois to be involved until the very end for both local stars.
It’s an exciting time to be an Illinois fan. The 2017-18 season is right around the corner, and while Dosunmu won’t be joining Smith in the lineup until next Winter, the program’s overall outlook is unquestionably pointing the right direction.
Get ready to win some damn basketball games. It’s been a long time coming.
Jim Vainisi is an Editor and Basketball Writer for The Champaign Room. You can follow him on Twitter (@JimVainisi) for more about Illinois Athletics, the Chicago Cubs, and Star Wars.