Is Illinois facing a cultural conundrum?

When head coach Brad Underwood and new assistant coach Orlando Antigua were introduced to the media last Tuesday, most of the talk centered around his return to Champaign and the process behind it. As they continued talking, the conversation shifted to roster construction and – you guessed it – the transfer portal.

This isn't particularly surprising as Antigua is a phenomenal talent producer. Over the years, he has coached NBA talents such as Anthony Davis, Karl-Anthony Towns and DeMarcus Cousins, among others. He was also one of the top recruiting assistants in the country, thanks in part to his ability to connect with players on and off the field.

Check out what a Flyin' Illini had to say about OA:

Based on his track record, it can be assumed that further transfers are on the horizon. Some players may want to learn from a coach like him, while others may jump at the chance to work with him again and continue the already positive relationship.

Whatever the case is for Incoming Transfer X, the expectations associated with it are different than those that have already been in the program for several years.

“It was extremely fun to coach this group,” Underwood said at Senior Day in March. “By far the most enjoyable year, just with character, with fun, with people working, people settled into our culture.”

Junior Luke Goode, one of those honored that day, was supposed to be the only surviving upperclassman from last year's team remaining, but his transfer to Indiana nixed that, leaving Ty Rodgers and Dra Gibbs-Lawhorn as the only scholarship players left to which they returned last year's team. Walk-ons AJ Redd and Keaton Kutcher are still in the program.

Buying into the culture can look different for different actors. If you're Coleman Hawkins, you developed it over four years playing for Underwood. If you're Terrence Shannon Jr., it's after two straight career seasons with Underwood. If you're Marcus Domask, Quincy Guerrier or Justin Harmon, you might come with the mindset that this is your last dance and that “shopping” might be the only way to turn this last dance into a disco.

TCR // Jack Jungmann

So… what is culture anyway?

Right. What Is Culture?

A winning culture is characterized by programs with overlapping banners. A hard-working or blue-collar culture, as is often said these days, is what middle schools and so-called “smaller market” schools might have.

The dictionary's own definition of culture can be applied to basketball.

*Culture: the set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterize an institution or organization (Merriam-Webster)

“I think there's still tremendous value in having freshmen, making them better, establishing your culture and establishing who you are,” Underwood said earlier in the season.

Building culture has been an important aspect of Underwood's teams at Illinois over the years. On last year's team, there were only two upperclassmen on the roster who had been on the team since their freshman year, and Underwood singled them out.

“They help teach the transfers what to do [even if they’re] One- or two-year-old boys because they understand that they were here,” he said. “I think Coleman Hawkins is one of the great examples, a four-year-old, right [Luke] Goode, a three-year player who just understands and helped our transfers this year.”

Hawkins recently entered the transfer portal in a decision that initially scared Illini fans.

“Relax lol,” Hawkins wrote to X in a written message to Illini Nation explaining why he entered the portal. If Underwood could bring back a cultural player like Hawkins for a fifth year, he could have a much easier transition period.

A team with a great culture can hold huddles where players can coach each other. The more time you spend with someone, the more you start to talk, act, and behave like them. If a player has been with a team for three or four years, he'll probably sound more and more like the coach as the Talar season begins.

Reaching cap and gown season requires a lot of continuity, which Underwood says has both pros and cons.

“Sometimes continuity. . . You can have too much,” he said last Tuesday when asked about his team’s turnover next year. He pointed out that Shannon and Hawkins are two guys he's comfortable with, but that a loss of continuity can also be exciting.

“I think with the newness comes a certain amount of excitement,” he said. “There's just a tremendous amount of excitement because I think the guys we have and the guys I know we're going to get are really talented and can do different things.”

Underwood hopes some of these new people can learn the culture quickly. Transfers with just one year of eligibility, like Ben Humichrous, might be followers of the culture, while others might practice, curate and carry it. Multi-year additions like Jake Davis, Kylan Boswell, Tre White and Tristan Booth could make big contributions to the program's culture, but it's Underwood who may have to do a lot of the culture “heavy lifting” next year.

“Of course I am the guardian of the culture,” he said. “I have to be able to pass that on and enforce it.”

Portal fight

“You mean the portal fight?” Antigua responded with a smile to a question about changes to the transfer portal and NCAA rules.

After Goode announces his transfer intentions, the Illini are expected to average just 10.4 points per game from a squad that averaged 83.4 last season – a mark that led the Big Ten and 10th nationally took place.

Goode's transfer leaves Ty Rodgers, a rising junior, as the longest-tenured Illini on the roster.

The Indiana native is one of five players leaving via transfer and the 11th overall. Along with Rodgers, Gibbs-Lawhorn and Redd are the only remaining players from last year's squad to see the field.

It's hectic and it can be difficult for fans to get used to, but it's the nature of modern college basketball, Antigua says. He also says that Underwood is well prepared for this new normal based on his previous experiences.

“One of the advantages that the coach has [Underwood] The thing about it is that as a junior college coach he had to do so much that every year you had to try to replenish and replace almost an entire roster,” he said. Underwood spent a total of seven years as a head coach at the JUCO level between Dodge City and Daytona State College (Florida).

The hectic new normal seems to be an old normal for Underwood.

“In today’s world there are a few people. When I was a JUCO coach, I always said, 'Just take a few guys no matter where they are in the program,' but they have to understand what we do and “I understand the lingo,” Underwood said.

“As always, 'We have to get players,'” Antigua said with a smile when asked what his first order of business from Underwood was in the Portal Battle. “We’re constantly working on it and exploring the universe, let me just say.”

“There are very few people in this business who have the connections he has,” Underwood said, citing Antigua’s background; his success with the Harlem Globetrotters and as a player.

As many know, contacts are crucial in recruiting. Over the years, Antigua has participated in some of the largest recruiting classes in the country.

So, Is Illinois basketball facing a cultural conundrum?

It remains to be seen. With a total of five years of experience playing at Illinois on the roster, it could take some time for the team to come together. It usually takes until conference play begins for Underwood's teams to look like, well, Underwood's team.

This summer there will be a fight for starting five and starting minutes. At least seven newcomers are taught a playbook and tirelessly drilled into their heads.

Underwood, Antigua, Geoff Alexander and Tim Anderson have an important offseason ahead of them. An offseason that could determine not only the success or failure of the product this fall, but also the culture of the program for the next four years or so.

Anna Harden

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