▪ Take 1: The University of Missouri wasted no time in making former East St. Louis Lincoln High and Purdue standout Cuonzo Martin its new men’s basketball coach. How will he do as the Tigers’ next coach?
My Take: Before I get into any of the coaching and recruiting items, Cuonzo Martin is one of the most quality human beings and down-to-earth people I’ve ever met. I covered him in high school and at Purdue and also did a feature story on him about his battle with cancer. He grew up in the housing projects of East St. Louis, won two state championships with the Lincoln Tigers during their three-peat run. He was a phenomenal competitor and battler who willed his teams to win as a player. Only 45, Martin has coached under Gene Keady at Purdue and been a head coach at Missouri State, Tennessee and California before coming to Mizzou. He knows the area, knows the key people on the recruiting scene and knows the talent. I’m predicting success will happen sooner, rather than later, for Martin and the Tigers.
My Take: Given his incredible season, this shouldn’t surprise anyone. Smith is a strong, 6-foot-4 guard who can score inside and outside, and is unselfish and extremely athletic. The list of schools pursuing him grows longer by the day, and Smith recently fielded phone calls from new coaches Brad Underwood at Illinois and Martin at Mizzou during their first days on the job. Smith also spent time with Texas coach Shaka Smart. While I like Mark Smith, the player, I like Mark Smith, the person, too. He’s humble, is quick to credit his teammates and coaches and works with local youth teams. Smith is only the second Mr. Basketball from the metro-east, joining former East St. Louis all-stater and NBA player Darius Miles. The only other Illinois Gatorade Basketball Player of the Year from here was former East St. Louis Lincoln, Notre Dame and NBA standout LaPhonso Ellis in 1988.
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▪ Take 3: Illinois makes an aggressive coaching hire in Brad Underwood, luring him away from Oklahoma State by tripling his salary ($18 million over six years). Is Underwood the answer for the Illini?
My Take: The 53-year-old Underwood did not find success overnight. He worked his way up through junior colleges and small schools. He was a Western Illinois assistant from 1992 to 2003, then spent time at Kansas State and South Carolina under veteran coaches Bob Huggins and Frank Martin before taking Stephen F. Austin to three straight NCAA tournament appearances. He left OSU after one season and an NCAA Tournament loss to Michigan, the latest hire by an Illini basketball program desperate to regain some clout in the Big Ten and nationally — and seething over a four-year NCAA tournament drought. To succeed, Underwood must find a way to open a talent pipeline from Chicago and the St. Louis region to Champaign. It won’t be easy, as his predecessor John Groce found out the hard way. Plus Underwood is now competing against Mizzou’s Martin and Saint Louis University’s Travis Ford and others for the same talent. Underwood’s fast-paced offense will be a welcome sight to Illini fans who still long for days of the halftime ceremonial dances of Chief Illiniwek — and those Final Four appearances.
▪ Take 4: College basketball coaches continue to jump from job to job, leaving behind unfulfilled contracts and players they recruited with the promise they would be coaching them throughout their careers.
My Take: If I were the NCAA Czar, I would make it a bylaw that any freshman, sophomore or junior athlete whose coach leaves to take another job should be granted a one-time opportunity to transfer to another school. No year of sitting out, no waiting to become eligible. These coaches chasing bigger contracts, more prestigious jobs and better situations say all the right things until it’s time to hop on a private plane for the next press conference at another school. CBS and Turner Sports agreed last year to an eight-year, $8.8 billion contract extension to carry the NCAA tournament. While on scholarship and receiving per diem meal money, the players still aren’t being paid (in theory), while universities are divvying up billions of dollars. Sure, players are helping create magical memories for alumni and fans (and TV audiences), but their coach could be gone the second the final buzzer sounds. Give the players who many times make a college decision based on the head coach that same opportunity to leave, without penalty, as long as they satisfy all academic requirements.
▪ Take 5 (the pop culture take): What will millennials remember 25 years from now?
My Take: Having a son who is a millennial (he’s 30), I hear lots of movie quotes, “Family Guy” and “Seinfeld” quotes, quotes from Dave Chappelle’s show and many others. Will millennials get all emotional when they hear Outkast’s “Hey Ya” or some Limp Bizkit 15 years from now? Will female millennials remember dance moves from Britney Spears or Beyonce videos (cue up “Single Ladies” and watch all those girls hit the floor)? Will they hold movie marathons to watch “old” flicks like “Titanic,” “Twilight” and “The Matrix,” or sing all the songs from “The Little Mermaid” and “Beauty and the Beast”? Will some get nostalgic watching Peter Griffin fight Ernie the Giant Chicken, or “The Office” episode where Dwight takes a knife to the CPR practice dummy after Andy starts singing “Stayin’ Alive” in rhythm to the chest pumps? Yes, they probably will. And from a guy who wrote about “Jonny Quest” cartoons a few weeks ago, that’s perfectly OK with me.