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Underwood previews 2018 recruiting class

The second-year head coach broke down his thoughts on the future Illini .

NCAA Basketball: Big Ten Conference Tournament-Iowa vs Illinois Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Illinois head coach Brad Underwood’s 2018 recruiting class grew Tuesday when five Illini recruits signed their letters of intent.

The 2018 class was Underwood and staff’s first real opportunity to strictly recruit “their” guys, in terms of players that they thought would best fit their system.

Before Tuesday, only five-star point guard Ayo Dosunmu had signed on the dotted line to play at Illinois this upcoming season. Now he has company.

First on this list of new roster additions is 6-foot-9, 230-pound Austrian forward Giorgi Bezhanishvili, who played high school basketball at The Patrick School in New Jersey.

Bezhanishvili played for Klosterneuburg in the Austrian Basketball League last season where he averaged 6.2 points, 2.6 rebounds and 1.4 assists per game.

While his stat line may not pop out to the average basketball fan, it’s the skill set he brings to the game that enticed Underwood.

“He’s an extremely skilled big man, and he excites me because I can run offense through him,” Underwood said. “He is one of the best passers I have ever seen for a guy that is his size.

“He’s got an IQ beyond his years and that is something that is very rare.”

Underwood also added that Bezhanishvili is a very capable three-point shooter that occupies space on the floor. Once strength and conditioning coach Adam Fletcher gets a hold of Bezhanishvili, Underwood said that he will become a very mobile 250 pounds.

The most recent Illini commit was top-ranked JUCO point guard Andres Feliz. Feliz averaged 20 points, 6.1 assists, 5.7 rebounds and 2.1 steals per game while also shooting 61 percent from the field and 41.8 percent from beyond the arc at Northwest Florida State junior college. Feliz was rewarded with NJCAA Division I First Team All-American honors this year.

Underwood, however, is more impressed with Feliz’s achievements in the winning department than his personal stats.

“Andres is a guy that does nothing but win,” Underwood said. “Terrific passer, great, great leader. A guy that is extremely high IQ. He’s very deceiving, he doesn’t look overly athletic, yet he gets the ball wherever he wants to.”

Underwood added a talented shooter when 6-foot-5 shooting guard Alan Griffin joined the Illini’s 2018 class.

Griffin, out of Archbishop Stepniac High School in New York, filled the stat sheet his senior season. He averaged 19.2 points, 9.9 rebounds, 3.9 assists, 2.4 steals and 1.8 blocks per game.

Arguably the most impressive feat by Griffin was his three-point percentage, shooting 48 percent from deep this year.

“He’s an elite shooter,” Underwood said. “He’s got tremendous length and the capability of scoring at all three levels — off the dribble, he’s got tremendous mid-range, then he has tremendous range on his jumper.”

Six-foot-7 guard/forward Tevian Jones from Culver City (California) is Illinois’ second-highest rated signee in 2018. Jones was listed as a four-star recruit and the 85th overall recruit in the country by Rivals.com.

Jones averaged 20.5 points, 9.5 rebounds, 2.5 assists and 1.7 steals per game his senior year while he shot 54 percent from field.

It’s Jones’ length and athleticism that has Underwood excited about his potential.

“I think he’s got a chance to be an elite defender at 6-foot-7 and long,” Underwood said. “He’s known as a shooter, but he’s a lot more than a shooter... He’ll be a guy that I think that can really stuff a stat sheet in a lot of capacities.”

Underwood and company landed themselves a true seven-footer with center Samba Kane. Kane stands right at seven feet while also weighing 220 pounds. In his senior season at Florida Prep Academy, Kane averaged 9.1 points, 6.5 rebounds and 2.2 blocks per game. Kane also shot 68 percent from the field.

Underwood said he likes Kane’s rim running and protecting abilities, while his offensive game is still developing at a promising rate.

“His skill level is very, very good. He’s not just a raw athlete, he can step out and shoot it, he’s a guy that can be very effective in the pinch post for us,” Underwood said. “He gives us an option in terms of ball screens, sprinting and getting to the front of the rim.

“His athleticism is something we felt really helps us and helps protect the rim.”

Illinois still has one open scholarship for the 2018-19 season.

But, with currently six new players set to join the roster next season, Underwood took some time to reflect on the process that was the 2018 recruiting class.

“We have a system, and we are going to recruit to that system,” Underwood said. “It’s not just go out and find a piece of this or that. This class that we signed today is the combination of that, and I think you start to see some tendencies and some of the things that we’ve been looking for.”