There isn’t supposed to be a lot of turnover on a coaching staff in college basketball after a 24-7 season and a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Don’t tell that to Illinois head coach Brad Underwood though.
Illinois is facing unprecedented turnover on their coaching staff this offseason with all three on-court assistant coaches leaving the Illini for two of the premier programs in the country. First, on May 7, Orlando Antigua and Chin Coleman left Illinois — despite reportedly being offered more money — for John Calipari and Kentucky.
“Orlando and Chin have been instrumental in the building of this program from day one, and they deserve a lot of credit for the success that we’ve experienced,” Underwood said in a statement. “They are dear friends who I’ll miss working alongside each day, and I am grateful for the impact they’ve had on my life, which is bigger than basketball. All the best to Coach O and Coach Chin from the Fighting Illini.”
Second, Stephen Gentry left for his alma mater, Gonzaga after spending the previous two seasons on staff at Illinois.
“It was the relationships forged through the chasing of these achievements that I will never forget and will always hold dear,” Gentry posted on his Twitter, mentioning several accomplishments during his tenure with the Illini.
The only time in Illinois history when the program has experienced a complete turnover of the assistant coaching staff occurred in 1996-97 when Lon Kruger was hired to replace Lou Henson and when John Groce was hired in 2012-13.
Illinois has filled two of the three vacancies on the coaching staff as of June 7. On the day the Antigua and Coleman hirings were made official, Illinois announced the hiring of Chester Frazier.
“Chester Frazier is one of the brightest young stars in the coaching profession,” Underwood said. “His love for his alma mater has stayed within throughout his brilliant rise in the coaching ranks. This pace means a great deal to him, having sweat equity in our program. Chester is a leader, a competitor and a winner. He’s achieved great success as a player here and as a coach both at Kansas State and Virginia Tech. His work ethic on the court on the recruiting trail, combined with the strong relationships he builds with players, make him a tremendous fit for the Fighting Illini.”
Frazier played at Illinois from 2005-09, averaging 4.9 points, 4.9 rebounds and 3.9 assists a game in his Illini career. Frazier prided himself on his defensive game where he was a two-time Big Ten All-Defensive team selection. He famously bumped Eric Cordon at half court in a pregame handshake. Frazier’s defensive style and competitiveness have already resonated with Underwood.
“The half-court handshake with Eric Gordon, I mean are shitting me, he blasted that dude,” Underwood said. “You don’t think that didn’t fit with me. We’re rocking right there now. Those are the connections you have to have. That’s the vibe, when you are trying to put the right pieces together, you look for guys with that fire, that passion.”
Frazier, though, is just happy to be back in Champaign at his alma mater and he plans to give the same energy in coaching as he did when he was playing.
“You’re going to feel my energy every day,” Frazier said. “Nothing has changed since I was a player. I’m going to go hard, compete. Guys are going to feel that edge, toughness. It’s a requirement to play the game that way. Now, obviously, you add the shooting, ball handling that comes with development. It’s about being tougher than everybody and competing. I don’t think much has changed from that standpoint. I’m still going to be tough. I’m still going to come to work with a lot of energy, passion every day to work. I hope these guys feed off that and take on that personality.”
Filling the second vacant coaching position is Geoff Alexander. Alexander was promoted on May 21 after spending the previous four seasons with Illinois as an assistant to the head coach.
In his previous role, Alexander contributed to Illinois with scouting reports, game and practice preparations, offensive and defensive implementation, player development planning and video analysis.
“Geoff has more than earned this opportunity; he has been an integral part of the everyday operation of our program these past four years during a period of tremendous growth and success,” Underwood said. “He has countless connections throughout his home state of Illinois and extensive recruiting experience across the country and internationally from his previous stops. I’ve always said that Geoff is a student of the game. That love and passion he has for basketball comes through in his coaching. He has great relationships with our players and familiarity with our systems, making this a very smooth transition.”
Alexander’s promotion comes after a season that allowed him more recruiting and on-court freedom than in previous years. The NCAA restricts programs to just three on-court, recruiting assistants; Alexander wasn’t one of those three assistants previously, but the NCAA had less restrictions in those areas last season. Alexander took advantage of the lesser restrictions and he believes it will help his transition to an on-court assistant.
“The thing that was in my position, some of those restrictions were taken out,” Alexander said. “I was able to be on the floor in a specific capacity. I was able to make recruiting calls, due to the COVID year. This last year has been different, it’s making the transition to on the court a little easier with recruiting because of the restrictions that were taken off last year.”
Alexander brings years of international recruiting connections to the Illini, something Antigua was successful in for Illinois landing international players Kofi Cockburn, Andres Feliz, Giorgi Bezhanishvili and Andre Curbelo.
“They are a really good fit for what we do,” Alexander said of recruiting international players. “The skillset, the size, the length. Those guys are brought up in their clubs over there. It’s impressive. They’ve been playing at high levels with their national teams. They have great IQ, those are the types of guys that fit what we do.”
Illinois is still looking to fill the final on-court assistant coaching position and is also looking to fill the vacancy in the assistant to the head coach position. Underwood said there is a lot of interest in the position, but it’s about landing the right person.
“It’s about filling it with the right guy,” Underwood said. “My goodness, the commitment Josh has made, the ability to know we’re a top-10 program. I mean, we’re talking with the right guys that I know fit. Yet, we’ve had calls from guys that would literally blow your mind in terms of people wanting this job. People know where our brand is at, and that’s been awesome. Now, it’s just a matter of we got to get the right guy in here. I’m pretty diligent going through that process.”
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