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Illinois Basketball and its silent culture builder

Illini fans have not gotten explanations for some important roster moves, but that could be a good thing.

NCAA Basketball: Wisconsin at Illinois Ron Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

It is fair to criticize Brad Underwood and Co. for the amount of talent and production that has been lost to the transfer portal over the last few years.

It is a new era, and of course the transfer portal has been going wild, but there are few universities that can match the production leaving as Illinois basketball in recent years.

While this is true, Underwood and his staff have excelled at something that rarely garners any praise from fans: keeping things under wraps.

The Cases

The Illini have sure had a lot of transfers that left fans going, “man, that really doesn’t make any sense”, and they never really receive that closure of reasoning.

I’ll be going through some of the top big name transfer portal entrees, and deciphering why they ended up there. Spoiler alert, because of how Brad Underwood and his staff have handled these situations with the media, the ending will always be, “but there’s no way of knowing for sure.”

Skyy Clark

NCAA Basketball: Lindenwood at Illinois
Skyy Clark in his starting role before stepping away from the program
Ron Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Skyy Clark was given all that he could have been given. He got all of the recruitment hype from Illini fans, chose a program that badly needed a point guard, and got put into a starting role just a month into the season.

Given all of this, he stepped away from the Illinois program because of personal issues. Of course this is completely reasonable, and he transferred a while later to Louisville without playing another minute for the Illini.

Maybe he experienced personal trauma and decided to leave the program, or maybe it was for NIL purposes, but there is really no way of knowing for sure.

The Illini coaching staff has contained the story from the press, not letting the problems of Clark get out to the public, and respecting the choices of Clark, even though they hurt the program. Not many know why he stepped away from the program or why he transferred, and it shows respect for Clark and his family.

Jayden Epps

NCAA Basketball: Illinois at Indiana
Jayden Epps in his start at Indiana University where he played 35 minutes
Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

Epps was one that left me in awe after hearing the news. Fourth in team PPG and starting after Clark left, yet still entering the transfer program and joining an Big East program. He looked like the point guard of the future for Illinois, but that title will be passed on to Georgetown.

Was Epps looking for a better NIL opportunity? Or maybe there was some conflict and he did not feel like he fit in the program? Either way, there's no way of knowing for sure.

Another loss that hurts, but yet again, Underwood and his staff has managed to keep the reasoning for his decision out of the hands of the press and into the hands of Epps and those close to him.

RJ Melendez

NCAA Basketball: Illinois at Nebraska Steven Branscombe-USA TODAY Sports

Melendez is important here for two reasons. First, his suspension, and, second, his transfer.

Continuing with the trend of Underwood being able to keep controversial news within the program, Melendez was suspended late in the season for “violating team rules.” He ended the news conference with, “That’s the deal and we’ll go from there”, with nothing else said.

Also, he transferred. I will say that Melendez sort of looked lost near the end of the season, and the suspension proved he had some trouble off the court as well, but a real reason never got out for the transfer and is another example of the kind of control Underwood has over his program.

Keeping locker room and player issues out of the hands of the press keeps players from losing focus and helps them to work on themselves rather than worry about something so dangerous as national media platforms.

Kofi Cockburn

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament First Round - Chattanooga vs Illinois Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Kofi Cockburn, best known for being one of the best NCAA men’s basketball players to ever hit the portal, was probably the strangest of this list of Underwood’s reasonless transfer portal hits.

Two years into what was becoming a legendary Illinois college career, Cockburn decided to test the transfer portal waters. Of course he decided to go back to Illinois after a while in the portal, but it is still a move that bewildered many.

Many fans speculated this could have been to get a larger NIL deal from Illinois, or maybe to follow Chin Coleman and Orlando Antigua who both left, but again, there's no way of knowing for sure. Even after he came back, there was no news about why he entered the portal or even why he came back. It was a personal matter, and the staff kept it that way.

A builder of culture

Keeping this kind of relationship with players where nothing the player doesn’t want getting to the public gets out is important because it builds a level of trust between the program, the staff, and the players. Even after players transfer out and create a big loss for the team, the ability and choice for the coaching staff to keep the player’s intentions hidden is an ability that is rarely talked about, but should garner more praise.

It is this kind of respect and relationship with players that makes recruits and transfers want to play for your program, and feel secure doing so.

Underwood has been able to keep player issues between them and their families, keep behavioral issues in the locker room, and build a positive basketball environment where players do not have to worry about what is being said about them outside of their performance on the court.

While it may be very stressful for fans who do not get closure on why their favorite players are suspended or transferring out, it it a positive culture builder in a place that is rarely mentioned in a positive sense.