Like Thanos canvasing the cosmos to find the six Infinity Stones that would make him powerful enough to achieve his lofty goals, Brad Underwood has left no stone unturned searching for basketball prospects capable of lifting the Illini to “avenge” years of downtrodden performances.
Over the past 15 months Underwood has had quite the adventure getting acclimated to Champaign, taking a look at his inherited team and then hitting the road to pull together help for the future. It didn’t take a basketball mastermind to determine that Illinois Basketball had plenty of needs, so to Underwood it had to be blinding. Together with his staff, he pulled the stud guard from Chicago, a long jumping-jack wing from California, the late-rising ballers from NYC/NJ and a point guard and center currently residing in Florida (originally from the Dominican Republic and Senegal, respectively). And after logging all those miles, the cherry on top might be residing 58 miles west in Normal, Illinois.
Francis Okoro, a 6-foot-9 muscly forward currently slated as a top-40 player in the class of 2019, is widely expected to reclassify to the class of 2018 and choose his destination between Oregon, Purdue and Illinois sometime in the next few weeks. The Illini fanbase has been familiar with Okoro for years, knowing him as one of the two (the other is EJ Liddell) huge frontcourt prospects in state and pinning the future rim protection of the program on his broad shoulders. What Okoro can do better than anyone on the current roster, including incoming prospects, is use his imposing frame to explode up for blocked shots and his uncanny quickness for a man his size to get out of his area and grab rebounds. The last Illini player to do both those things well? Well, it predates my paying attention.
For those that don’t follow recruiting as closely and haven’t watched Okoro highlights for the last two seasons: Do you remember how whenever opposing players dribbled into the lane they were able to finish layups or dunks? Yeah, that won’t happen as much. Okoro is a full-grown man, and he is the answer punctuated with an exclamation point to that recurring layup-line nightmare.
Depending on who you ask, you’ll get a different read on Okoro’s recruitment. Some think he’s bound for Oregon; others believe Matt Painter’s done enough to bring him to West Lafayette; and others are siding with Illinois. So who to believe? Depends on what color Kool-Aid you’re drinking. If that color happens to be orange, Okoro puts a beautiful gem into Underwood’s gauntlet… I mean, his 2018 recruiting class.
So, if everything goes according to plan, what’s next for Underwood and staff? Unfettered attention beaming down on the class of 2019, most notably stud prospects EJ Liddell and Kahlil Whitney. If all goes right, and you can piece together the current nucleus of players, the incoming group (+Okoro) and then those two studs? Well then, the Illini are cooking with gas and building back a program primed for sustained success and highlights. Liddell and Whitney are the types of kids that can come in as freshmen and make huge impacts on a team that should be through the roughest patch of the rebuild.
Heck, we might even get to see a dunk or two.