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Illini Needs Chicago's Best Young Athletes, But Can Underwood Get Them?

By Justin Breen | March 28, 2017 5:55am
 Morgan Park coach Nick Irvin (center) discussed Illinois' new hire, Brad Underwood.
Morgan Park coach Nick Irvin (center) discussed Illinois' new hire, Brad Underwood.
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CHICAGO — The question on most Illinois basketball fans' minds about new coach Brad Underwood is: Can he recruit Chicago?

For decades, the Illini's success depended on city stars like Marcus Liberty, Deon Thomas and Nick Anderson. But, of late, Illinois has not landed Chicago's best players, and it very possibly cost former coach John Groce his job.

Morgan Park High School head coach Nick Irvin said Underwood and the Illini must do a better job getting Chicago's most elite players.

"As the time goes on, we'll see if [Underwood] can get players like some of the other coaches didn't do," Irvin said. "The jury is still out if he can do it, but it comes down to who the kids like, who they respect, to get them to come to Champaign. It's going to take someone special to do it. Can they get the players like [former Illini assistant and former UIC head coach] Jimmy Collins was able to?"

Irvin said Morgan Park hasn't had a star player go to Illinois since Levi Cobb in the 1970s.

He said hiring a high school coach from Chicago — or even one of his brothers — would help Underwood's chances of attracting the city's top talent. Lance Irvin has been a college coach for nearly 20 years, and Mike Irvin runs prestigious Mac Irvin Fire AAU program. 

Chicago native Paris Parham is still listed as an assistant coach with the Illini and has been on Groce's staff for five years. It's not known whether he'll be retained.

"If you want talent, you have to find and pick the right person," Nick Irvin said. "If he wants Chicago basketball players, he's going to need to go outside the box, and there are coaches in the Public League who are good coaches.

"You should hire someone who knows the Chicago landscape. You have to do the research about who has the players, who has been around Chicago for a number of years, who understands these basketball players.

"Every coach that comes to Illinois says they really want Chicago kids, but do they really want them?"

Underwood was introduced to the media March 20 and spent the next day visiting Chicago to discuss the city's importance to the Illini.