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No, the transfer portal isn’t ruining Illinois Basketball

Let’s talk about The Brad Underwood Transfer Problem.

Illinois v Ohio State Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images

The transfer portal is breaking the brains of college basketball fans everywhere.

For the Illini fan base, the offseason discourse has largely centered around whether the head men’s basketball coach yells too much.

Unfortunately that’s not a joke.

We get a lot of these Facebook comments.

The truth is, a quarter of the players across the country transfer every year. It’s weird if you don’t have four scholarship players go portaling. It is what it is, and it doesn’t matter if you’re the sweetest little old man or have more NIL money than all the oil barons combined. The kids are going to come, and the kids are going to go.

Underwood has coached six full seasons at Illinois and has taken a program from the depths of hell to three (really four) straight NCAA Tournament appearances all while navigating the Player Empowerment Renaissance. And if there are any more hot seat rumblings about Underwood to start the 2023-24 season I can promise you that I will come out of blogging retirement again just to post my weekly column titled “Brad Underwood is a Good Coach”.

However, I was genuinely curious to see just how bad this Brad Underwood Transfer Problem (Trademark Pending) is when you look at it all spelled it all out. And to be truly honest, I love a good trip down Illinois Basketball memory lane.

In six seasons, 20 players have transferred out of Underwood’s Illinois Program and in some not-so-shocking news, only a couple of them have really left us wanting them back.

For this exercise, each of the transfers have been split into 3 distinct categories:

  • Groce Leftovers
  • Big Man Dice Rolls
  • High Major Talents

And each transfer also received one of three retrospective grades:

  • Sometimes Divorce is Good
  • Neutral
  • Baby Come Back

Let’s get into it.

Groce Leftovers

It’s not these guys’ fault but whenever I think of these two players I think of the 4:40 mark of this video of Underwood looking right at them and calling the whole program out for being a bunch of losers.

Michael Finke: An honorable Illini who left for more shots and minutes from a Colangelo Connection at GCU. His minutes went to freshman sensation Giorgi Bezhanishvili. Retrospective Grade: Sometimes Divorce is Good

Te’Jon Lucas: An old school PG who showed some flashes before moving on to Milwaukee and BYU. He never really learned how to shoot, which is a big part of the game. Retrospective Grade: Sometimes Divorce is Good

Big Man Dice Rolls

This category ended up being my main takeaway from this little deep dive. Brad Underwood LOVES to just take a flier on a 6-foot-10 big who can walk and chew gum. And from a roster building standpoint, I can’t say I hate the idea. Giorgi Bezhanishvili is one of the rare hits, but he was a massive part of the rebuild. And while this strategy was implemented more frequently at the beginning of Underwood’s tenure, it definitely hasn’t stopped.

This impressive crew represents 40% of all the transfers out of Brad Underwood’s Illini program.

And Spoiler Alert: All of these players receive Retrospective Grades of “Sometimes Divorce is Good.” But that doesn’t mean we love them any less.

Greg Eboigbodin: Spicy G could never nail down a starting spot at Northeastern.

Matic Vesel: Real ones know. That’s all I’ll say. Real ones know.

Samba Kane: Has had stops with not a ton of production at San Francisco and Milwaukee, but his name was so cool we had no choice but to be hyped about him.

Jermaine Hamlin: He couldn’t crack the starting lineup at EIU the last two seasons, but I think he may have been the best of the bunch.

Benjamin Bosmans-Verdonk: Bossman tried so damn hard, but I’ve never seen such a deficient layup package in all my basketball watching years. I saw him celebrating on the South Carolina bench during the Alabama game this season. An absolute treat.

Omar Payne. Singlehandedly won us that game in Lincoln, Nebraska that was necessary to secure the B1G Title. Flags Fly Forever. Thank you, Omar. He came off the bench at Jacksonville this season.

Zacharie Perrin: That may have just been a fever dream.

Brandon Lieb: I’m still not ready to talk about this one.

High Major Talents

Now this is the interesting category. This is the one people have gripes about. There are 10 players who have transferred from Illinois that I believe have “High Major Talent”. And what I mean by that is they could be in the rotation at Illinois or a comparable NCAA Tournament aspiring program.

A rubric note before we dive into these guys. If they receive a Neutral Grade it can mean one of two things:

  1. Both parties are probably fine with how things worked out. There are some I probably lean more one way than the other on, but am willing to hear both sides of the argument.
  2. Too early to call. Again, I think we all have differing opinions on certain guys – I’ll never give up on you RJ – but we need to see how the rest of their careers play out.

Mark Smith: Started for three years at Mizzou and made an NCAA Tournament and toiled away at Kansas State under Bruce Weber of all people for his fifth and final year. He finally turned into more of the shooter everyone hoped he would be away from Champaign but never reached that next level. Ayo, Trent and Andres Feliz took over the guard duties in 2019, and I think most people are okay with how that went. Retrospective Grade: Sometimes Divorce is Good

Alan Griffin: This one hurts. His minutes in Champaign stand up analytically and represent some of the most efficient offensive stretches of the Brad Underwood era. He transferred to Syracuse, made the Sweet 16 and turned pro. It would have been nice to have him on that No. 1 seed Illini roster. Retrospective Grade: Baby Come Back

Tevian Jones: Losing Alan Griffin may not have been so bad if we were able to keep Tev. I adopted Tevian as my guy before he even committed so I am extremely biased. He went to Southern Utah and scored 15+ PPG for three straight years and just showed out at the Portsmouth Invitational. Looking back, there may have been an opportunity to be a little more laid back on some of those team rules and not burn the bridge with Jones. Retrospective Grade: Baby Come Back

Adam Miller: Ace had a really strong freshman season at Illinois before leaving for greener pastures. He transferred to LSU and suffered a knee injury. And now he is transferring to Arizona State. Ace seems to march to the beat of his own drum. Which isn’t good or bad. I don’t think his departure made nearly as big of an impact on the Illini program as most had thought. Retrospective Grade: Neutral

Andre Curbelo: The Curbelo Rollercoaster was fun to ride for those two seasons and they brought us two Big Ten Championships. But it was time. The Illini needed a PG for the 2022-23 season, but if you caught any of this St. John’s season you probably know that those antics of old didn’t exactly quell. Retrospective Grade: Neutral

Jacob Grandison: This was reminiscent of an old school grad transfer. The Illini had newer, shinier pieces (RJ, Hawkins, Mayer) they were looking to play with. And the core that Grandison had come up with was moving on. It didn’t make a ton of sense for him to return and he had a very cool opportunity to play at a historic program in Duke. With that said, the Illini definitely could have used a steady hand around in 2023. Retrospective Grade: Neutral

Brandin Podziemski: Sometimes you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone? I’m not sure anyone who follows Illinois or is associated with Illini basketball saw this past season at Santa Clara coming for Podz. He had flashes as a freshman, but didn’t totally look like a Big-Ten ready guard. Everyone would have taken Clark and Epps over Podz last spring, and that’s exactly what the staff did. Unfortunately, it turned out that the lead guard the program desperately needed had traveled west. Retrospective Grade: Baby Come Back

Skyy Clark, Jayden Epps and RJ Melendez: All three find themselves at high major programs and it wouldn’t shock me if any of them find themselves in an NCAA Tournament rotation. Clark flamed out fast in Champaign. It became clear it wasn’t a fit, and I don’t think any Illini fans will miss him terribly, but that doesn’t mean he won’t have success elsewhere. Epps could really fill it up and it would have been a fun player to watch grow into his own. I’m still a believer in RJ’s talents and if you told me he will make an All-SEC team at some point my jaw will not be on the floor. Retrospective Grade: Neutral

And there we have it folks. A complete tabular history of the Illini players who have left Brad Underwood.

There are two key takeaways from this blog:

  1. Brad Underwood loves raw, unproven big men. Adores them.
  2. Players are going to keep transferring out.

Over the past three seasons, the Illini have averaged about 4 transfers out per year, which may be slightly above average but far from abnormal. And Podz is really the only guy you can look at and say, “Wow, our world really may have been different if he stayed”. But on the other hand, there’s no guarantee Podz would have been successful in the Big Ten, and Skyy for Podz is a preseason trade the fans and staff would make 10 times out of 10.

Loss aversion is very real, but if you want to be able to bring in home-run prospects, you have to be willing to strike out a little more often.

And just remember, like grandpa Lovie always taught us: Sometimes Divorce is Good.