Can Illini find answer to the big picture?

John Groce has his point guard but can he land a much-needed big man in the 2016 class? Lead basketball reporter Derek Piper breaks it down.

The Illini filled a major need last week by landing four-star point guard Te'Jon Lucas in the 2016 class, but John Groce's staff still has a big-time question that needs to be answered.

While the focus has turned to three-star small forward Xavier Sneed, who would be a very nice add for Illinois, there is still a glaring hole down low when you peer into the future. After losing senior center Nnanna Egwu, Groce went with the quick fix in fifth-year transfer Mike Thorne Jr.

But Thorne will be gone after a one-year stint, and the Illini already lack frontcourt depth with the failed Darius Paul experiment. Whether you trust Michael Finke and Maverick Morgan to hold down the center position next season or not, Illinois must add more pieces to the puzzle.

The Illini staff has put effort in the cause but they've had no success to this point. It has been a makeshift plan with the way things have unfolded. The in-state landscape proved to be weak with Barret Benson and Nick Rakocevic as the headliners.

Illinois couldn't make it happen elsewhere in the Midwest either. Heading into July, most of the staff's original 2016 down low targets were crossed off the list. This forced the staff to try getting in late with out-of-state longshots like California center Jayce Johnson and Texas power forward Clevon Brown.

Johnson eliminated the Illini from contention at the end of August. Groce and assistant coach Dustin Ford went down to Texas for an in-home visit with Brown earlier this month, and they hoped to get him on campus for an official in October. However, Brown's AAU coach, Seth Engelken, informed IlliniInquirer.com this week that Texas and Vanderbilt are the two finalists.

As it stands, the Illini have only two offered 2016 targets remaining in the frontcourt: Georgia center James Banks and Australian power forward Harry Froling. Banks is a top-50 prospect in the class and the Illini got in the mix rather late. But it helps a little bit that he now plays at La Lumiere, where the Illini are well-connected.

Illinois was been in to see Banks multiple times this month. Scout.com national basketball analyst Brian Snow reported that the Illini were watching on Tuesday. La Lumiere head coach Shane Heirman told IlliniInquirer.com that Illinois was up last week, and Groce was there the week before that as well. The Illini are hoping to secure an official visit with Banks, who has already visited Texas and Vanderbilt.

There hasn't been a lot of certainty on where Banks will end up. If Illinois can get him to come to Champaign for a visit, anything can happen. Still, it doesn't seem like a situation that you can bank on.

Froling is even less of a sure thing, as not much is known about his situation. The Illini made his list of top-10 schools last month, along with Boise State, Colorado, Creighton, Kansas State, Miami, Oregon, Oregon State, SMU and Wake Forest. Assistant coaches from Miami and SMU have been out to visit Froling in Australia recently. North Carolina is also showing interest in the skilled big man.

The Illini would be smart to add at least one more big man to the offer list, especially with the need for depth. They had their eye on a pair of Canadian big men in July, Eddie Ekiyor and Kalif Young, but offers were never extended. Ekiyor was impressive at the Nike Global Challenge in Chicago with his athleticism, motor and ability to attack the glass. He certainly has high-major talent, and he has visits lined up to Florida, Miami, Vanderbilt and Xavier.

But it doesn't look like Illinois will join the mix. Ekiyor was arrested last month in Canada for a hit-and-run situation. The legal process still has to play out, but the Illini will avoid the risk largely because of the way Paul turned out.

Illinois is still monitoring Young, though. The 6-foot-9 big man is a load in the post at 260 pounds. Young moves pretty well for his size, and he certainly clears space in the lane. He still needs to improve his overall skill, but Young is intriguing with his ability to rebound and bang down low. His offer list isn't threatening for the Illini, so they can afford to wait for now.

How about a wildcard option who the Illini might be smart to look at? Try Iowa Western CC center Thik Bol, who was the top JUCO shot blocker in the country last season (4.9 per game). Bol also averaged 9.6 points per game. He isn't particularly tall for a center at 6-foot-8, but Bol has extremely long arms and he has superb defensive timing. He can make a valuable impact in that area, especially if he can pack on some muscle.

Bol has a laundry list of mid-major offers, including ones from Murray State and Wichita State. The Illini offered Iowa Western point guard Donovan Jackson, who committed to Iowa State. Bol is worth a look as well. Following the lead of Wichita State head coach Greg Marshall isn't a bad thing - as he has thrived with plenty of players who others have slept on.

Of course, Groce could once again look for transfer options in the spring and then wait for long-term solutions in the 2017 class - especially since guys like Young and Bol would need time to develop before making a big impact. But class balance is important and it's impossible to forecast what will be out on the transfer market.

Banks would be the ideal get, but the Illini may want to have a solidified backup plan if their wish list gets rearranged again.


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