Illinois added some much-needed interior size on Monday afternoon as Kent State center Adonis De La Rosa announced his pledge to the Illini.
The 7-foot, 260-pound De La Rosa started his career with a redshirt year at St. John’s before spending his second year of college at Williston State College. De La Rosa has spent the last two seasons at Kent State, as he averaged a solid 11.8 points and 7.6 rebounds per game on 56 percent shooting as a junior.
Since Illinois lost its frontcourt of Leron Black and Michael Finke from last season, the Illini were in desperate need of some experience on the interior as De La Rosa should be a nice option to plug into the middle. In a Big Ten conference that features physically-imposing big men like Michigan State’s Nick Ward and Ohio State’s Kaleb Wesson, Illinois needed someone to counter those bigger interior players.
One of the key things to watch for with De La Rosa will be his health.
During March, De La Rosa tore his ACL during the MAC Tournament and had surgery on the injury later that month. While most ACL injuries require 6-to-9 months of recovery time, it varies for everyone. De La Rosa will likely still be recovering and working through the injury through the summer in order to get ready for the season.
With limited size on roster Brad Underwood embracing small ball at Illinois
Illinois doesn’t have any returning size to speak of for next season as head coach Brad Underwood appears to be embracing small ball.
In a radio interview Friday with Lon Tay and Derek Piper on ESPN’s 93.5, Underwood addressed an Illini roster that features no players taller than 6-foot-6 returning to the roster from last season. While Illinois has a six-man recruiting class featuring 6-foot-11 Samba Kane and 6-foot-9 Giorgi Bezhanishvili, both of those big men are considered three-star prospects who are more developmental pieces in the class.
It means that Underwood is embracing three- and four-guard lineup possibilities while also potentially playing a smaller player at the five. With Trent Frazier coming back, along with talented freshman guards like Ayo Dosunmu and Andres Feliz, expect to see a lot of small-ball lineups for Illinois this season.
“I think everybody gets excited about bigs. Draymond Green is Golden State’s center. Draymond is 6’6”, maybe 6’7”. The most important thing to us in our system is guard play. Because it’s about breaking the defense down, it’s about playing with some tempo and pace. All of (our) perimeter players are different,” Underwood said in the interview. “Villanova played a lot of the time in the Final Four with three point guards on the court. So you could see Trent, Ayo and Andres Feliz on the court together. And I love the versatility because it’s creativity, it’s good basketball players and they can all do things that enable you to win. Pass, guard, shoot it, get it into the paint.”
Preach, Brad Underwood, Preach.
Illinois will undoubtedly have a disadvantage against many Big Ten opponents when it comes to interior defense and rebounding. But rather than playing big guys who might not be ready to help at all, Underwood seems content on putting his five best players on the floor — regardless of size or “positional fit.”
That approach has worked well for Golden State. As Underwood noted, it worked pretty well for Villanova last season.
This isn’t to say that Illinois should be viewed as some sort of Big Ten contender because they’re following in the mold of some recent champions. Small-ball isn’t some cure-all magic formula. The Illinois roster is very young and inexperienced and filled with question marks at multiple spots. But it means Illinois should at least be fun to watch next season as they could use some creative lineups to attack the Big Ten’s best.
The 6-foot-4 Dosunmu averaged more than 23 points per game in the EYBL last summer for the Mac Irvin Fire while shooting 47.8 percent from the field. His decision to stay home and attend Illinois is a huge win for Underwood ahead of his first season in Champaign. Chicago is no easy place to recruit, but if Underwood can establish that pipeline, it would go a long way in bringing the Illini back to the top of the Big 10.
“I can come in and play in front of my home state,” Dosunmu told Rivals. “I want to do it for my home state and become the first five-star recruit to play for my state in a long time. I just want to start a new trend.“I know somebody would have to eventually do it.
“A team is never bad for so long. Just look at the Chicago Cubs; they were bad for 100 years but eventually they won the World Series. I just want to help start something new.”
On Thursday afternoon, Brad Underwood, the new head coach of Illinois, was invited to Wrigley Field to throw out the first pitch and sing ‘Take Me Out To The Ball Game’ during the seventh inning stretch.
While the ceremonial first pitch went well, his rendition of the ballpark classic did not go as smoothly.
Thursday night the Oklahoma State program announced that junior forward Tyrek Coger has tragically passed away after collapsing following a team workout. A newcomer from Cape Fear (North Carolina) CC, the Raleigh native was expected to compete for minutes in the front court under first-year head coach Brad Underwood.
“Tyrek was excited to be at Oklahoma State and had such passion for the game and was looking forward to being an OSU Cowboy,” Underwood said in a statement released by the school. “Losing a member of the team is like losing a member of the family. But we know our loss pales in comparison to the pain his family is going through.”
Coger completed his high school career at Word of God Christian Academy in Raleigh before moving on to the junior college ranks, where he played the 2013-14 season at East Florida State CC. After sitting out the 2014-15 academic year Coger resumed his full-time studies at Cape Fear CC, committing to Oklahoma State in late-June after originally making a pledge to attend Ole Miss.
Jacob Parker, Stephen F. Austin gain confidence from communication
Senior forward and reigning Southland Player of the Year Jacob Parker wasn’t always a star-quality player at Stephen F. Austin. After two years under previous head coach Danny Kasper, Parker put up ordinary numbers on ordinary teams.
But under new head coach Brad Underwood last season, Parker’s game expanded. The same thing happened to Parker’s teammates and it helped launch the Lumberjacks to unprecedented program success, including an undefeated record in Southland play, a 29-game win streak and a trip to the Round of 32 in the NCAA Tournament.
Underwood’s strategy as a head coach certainly paid off — including setting a culture predicated on a theory of, “getting better every single day we’re in the gym,” — but he’s also tried to keep it loose and fun for his players so their personalities come through and they can focus on basketball when the time comes.
“Once he came in, it was a whole different lifestyle,” Parker said to NBCSports.com. “With Coach Kasper, it was clean shaven, crew cut, nothing out of the ordinary. Coach Underwood came in, he was a whole different guy. A lot of fun to be around him. Guys were in the office all the time last year. It’s just a good environment to be around.”
With the new coaching staff in place, the changes became particularly apparent for Parker, both on-and-off the court, as the 6-foot-6 forward had a tremendous year in 2013-14. After putting up 7.2 points and 4.3 rebounds per game as a sophomore, Parker became the conference’s best player, averaging 14.2 points, 7.1 rebounds, 2.0 assists and 1.4 steals per game as a junior while shooting 53.8% from the field, 46.9% from three-point range and 79.8% from the free-throw line.
But the changes also came off-the-floor. Parker grew his hair out long for the first time and Underwood said he began to show his personality and leadership ability.
“This is the first time in my life I’ve ever grown out my hair. So that was a big change for myself,” Parker said.
Parker’s coach described him as a “really quiet leader,” but teammates respect Parker in-part because he’s grounded and simple, often sticking to activities he’s done his whole life and working very hard on the court. His teammates and coaches like the person that Parker has become and Underwood likes his star player’s personality.
“He’s a guy that at the end of the day would probably be just as happy being the star of Duck Dynasty,” Underwood said. “He loves to hunt and fish, it’s part of his upbringing. He’s very creative.”
Communicating with players and learning about hobbies and problems is a huge component of the Stephen F. Austin men’s basketball program. Underwood wants players to have fun and remain loose away from the court and he believes earning that trust will help lead to better communication in games and on the court.
“I think that communication is the single most important thing to the success of a program,” Underwood said. “I think, as a coach, I’m trying to push these guys to get better every day, knowing the hardest thing to get a kid to do is to be an everyday guy. I need to understand why they have a bad day. Whether they stayed up for an econ test, or problems at home and to do that we need communication.”
That kind of focus on communication led to Underwood being able to reach his new players on his style of play nearly immediately. Parker said that the communication on the floor was positive from the moment Underwood took the job and the team grasped what they were trying to accomplish.
“Right when he got down here he kind of showed us what we would be doing,” Parker said. “Our defensive principles are very strong, which is very important. He showed us about the kind of offense we would run. And it was eye-opening because I’d never played like that.”
The ability to instantly learn the new concepts coupled with a balanced team that could shoot helped Stephen F. Austin have a special season. Four players ended up averaging double-figure scoring last season and five players shot at least 35 percent from the three-point line.
There’s some questions heading into the season now that Desmond Haymon and Deshaunt Walker are gone from the wing, but senior forward Thomas Walkup is back with Parker and the team is anxious to build on last season’s success. The rotation for the Lumberjacks should be deeper this season.
“I love the increased depth. I think that this will be a more competitive team in practice, which I hope makes us much better,” Underwood said. “I think this team has the capability of maybe scoring the ball a little easier than last year’s team. We do lose a great deal of experience.”
Stephen F. Austin might not be able to go unbeaten in a deep Southland Conference this season, but they’re hoping that the new pieces are able to come in and grasp the concepts quickly like Underwood taught the whole team last season.
The Lumberjacks want to get back to the NCAA Tournament and make some more noise.