‘We’ve got a great opportunity’: Underwood expresses excitement for incoming freshman class as roster continues to take shape


Cameron Krasucki

Illinois men’s basketball head coach Brad Underwood walks alongside the sidelines during the Big Ten Tournament game against Indiana on March 11. Underwood has shown excitement for the incoming freshman players such as guards Jayden Epps and Skyy Clark.

By Jackson Janes, Staff Writer

It’s no secret that next year’s Illinois men’s basketball team will look much different from its Big Ten regular-season title-winning squad of this season. With three starting guards no longer having any college eligibility and two other starters still undecided on their futures, the Illini could potentially need to replace their entire starting five.

With three other players already in the transfer portal — junior center Omar Payne, sophomore guard Andre Curbelo and freshman guard Brandin Podziemski — and opting to place elsewhere next season, head coach Brad Underwood and his staff have already been hard at work, looking to build another championship contender.

That starts with the four freshmen who have signed with the Illini: guards Jayden Epps out of North Carolina, Sencire Harris out of Ohio and Skyy Clark, who signed his national letter of intent on Wednesday, out of Florida and forward Ty Rodgers out of Illinois.

Though Epps, Rodgers and Harris committed and signed for several months now, Clark just announced his decision to head to Champaign less than one week ago. Underwood is already excited for each player brings to the table.

“You add (Skyy Clark) to Sencire, to Ty, to Jayden and you’ve got a gritty, hard-fought, tough, very talented, very athletic group of guys,” Underwood said. “I think this recruiting class can lead to many years of success for our future and Illinois basketball.”

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Clark, who is a five-star recruit per 247Sports and a four-star recruit per Rivals, is coming off a serious knee injury that limited his participation as a senior. 

Despite Clark’s setback, Underwood is confident that the injury is “not a concern,” and he looks forward to adding the highly touted guard to his squad.

“I’m always excited to add not just an outstanding player but a terrific person,” Underwood said. “A gentleman with extremely high character. His talents speak for themselves. Those are exciting to talk about, but a young guy that loves the game, loves to work, is very committed, dedicated to becoming a great player.”

Freshmen guards Luke Goode and RJ Melendez round out the guard depth for the Illini, though graduate student Austin Hutcherson, who has played just four games for Illinois since transferring to the program in 2019, also has eligibility remaining.

The Illini will have just two combined starts between its three potential returners and three incoming freshmen, but Underwood is confident his team will be just fine.

The transfer portal remains an option for Illinois to explore some veteran help at the guard position, with several talented, experienced players rumored to be considering Illinois, including Texas Tech’s Terrence Shannon Jr. and Texas’ Courtney Ramey.

Underwood said he wants to play faster and improve in transition, two areas he thought the Illini struggled last season, and he thinks his four incoming freshmen fit the bill.

 “We’re gonna play faster,” Underwood said. “I said it last year; I thought I wanted to play faster, and the way things played out this year, we made a lot of adjustments … We weren’t a great lay-up-making team this year. We lost that aspect when we lost Ayo. 

“This team wasn’t elite in transition, and (junior center) Kofi (Cockburn) logged a ton of minutes, but we’ve gotta be able to get that back. We’ve got guys that play downhill. We’ve got elite speed. And maybe the best speed we’ve ever had, from really all four of those freshmen, so that excites me because we’ve got a chance to be really good on both ends of the court.”

With the roster slowly taking shape, Underwood knows the challenges that lie ahead for the Illini, but he’s ready to dive headfirst and get his freshmen on campus this summer.

“We’ve got a great opportunity for those young men,” Underwood said. “Are they gonna play? Absolutely. Are they gonna make mistakes? Absolutely. Are we gonna have to let them play through some mistakes? Absolutely, but that’s how they grow. 

“I’m not afraid to play freshmen, and these guys are very, very talented. They’re gonna have to learn on the fly, and I’m excited for that.”



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