May 6, 2009

Underwood is a secret no more

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Players are often categorized as "sleepers" in the recruiting game if they don't have a bundle of stars after their names. It seems Missouri signee Jonathan Underwood has that stigma attached to his name. But don't tell that to Van Whitfield.

"I don't have a notion that he wasn't recruited heavily," said Whitfield, who coached Underwood this year at Princeton Day Academy in Lanham, MD. "Let me give you this list of schools: Georgetown, Florida State, Oklahoma State, Texas Tech, Nevada. Does that sound like lightly recruited? We had a lot of high Division One programs at our practices and our games."

Underwood started his career in Nevada. He then moved to Avondale, AZ and Agua Fria High School, where he set a state record as a junior, averaging nine blocked shots a game. But the transfer had impacted Underwood's academic status, so he opted to go to Princeton Day to work on his core grades.

"Early on, Creighton, Wyoming, those type of schools had offered, Arizona was looking at him, he just didn't have the right core," said Vernon Holmes, Underwood's AAU coach with the Arizona Dream Team. "Once he went to the prep school he wanted to just go to school."

Underwood got his academics in order, and has already achieved a qualifying score on the SAT. He is now finishing up one final class this summer and will start his college career at Mizzou in the fall.

"Throughout our season, cause we played a high profile schedule, word got out that this team is winning a lot of games and this guy is a focal point," Whitfield said. "Missouri and Coach Watkins, my hat goes off to him and his persistence in maintaining contact, coming out to see him. It made an impact. There was one time we were watching Missouri on ESPN and I swear coach must have called him from the tunnel. We saw the team warming up and he was on the phone. When you work that hard and work that smart, it makes a difference."

The question now for Tiger fans is, exactly what kind of player did Watkins get? While Underwood was apparently no secret to college coaches, he is a virtual unknown to those that follow recruiting. The gaudy blocked shot numbers turn heads for sure, and have earned Underwood a reputation as a defensive stalwart.

"He's a unique type of player," Holmes said. "That's one of the things he could do early on. Some kids have that timing and he's got that timing, got good feet."

But to focus on Underwood's defense does the rest of his game a disservice.

"Our first game was against a school up in Harlem. He had 29 points," Whitfield said. "We said, where's this defense? That was a dominant performance against a top New York City school and from that point forward we saw that his offensive skill set was as polished as his defensive skill set. It's just when you block as many shots as he can block, it changes the flow of the game."

And, ultimately, it was the defense that sold the Tiger coaches on Underwood's ability.

"He went up on the visit to Missouri this past weekend, they really loved him," Holmes said. "They said he had 9 blocked shots in the scrimmage. They said that's all they needed to know."

Underwood averaged 18 points, 11 rebounds and eight blocks a game this season according to Whitfield. And he did it in a system that is a mirror image of what he will run at Mizzou.

"Any player on our roster would be hand delivered to that style of play," Whitfield said.

"I think it's perfect for his game because he's a kid that can run the floor," Holmes agreed. "He's a guy that you want because that kid can get up and down the floor."

A sleeper? If you must. But Whitfield prefers to look at it a different way.

"You hear the term upside used a lot. He surpassed the upside that we first imagined when we first got him," the coach said. "Tiger fans, they got a good one."

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