Illini Inquirer's Derek Piper answers your Illini hoops questions

Lead basketball reporter Derek Piper answers your mailbag questions.

1. Chances with Sneed now?

2. Any chance of getting a big man in 2016?

3. With way rest of Big 10 is recruiting, is Illinois recruiting well enough to move up in rankings?

4. Is Moore still taking his official this weekend? – bbfan25

1. I think Illinois should feel good but not necessarily great about Xavier Sneed. There is a concern about playing time on the wing. But in my opinion, he can get a lot of minutes in Champaign from his sophomore year and beyond. If the Illini can convince him of that, I think they will land him. It’s interesting because I was told that the Illini camp sees it coming down to them and Kansas State. Others have believed that Xavier is in the lead heading into their official visit on Thursday. I’ve heard that Sneed’s mom is pushing for Xavier. Going to be interesting to see what the buzz is after the visit.

2. There is definitely a chance. As good as you would have hoped? No, but there are still some options out there. The staff is starting to push hard for James Banks. Sounds like they’ll get him on campus soon. If they can’t get him, they could extend an offer to Canadian big man Kalif Young or look at a JUCO option like Thik Bol. But they may have to wait until the spring for Banks. Wouldn’t be terrible to wait on him since they likely want an instant impact guy. Get him or look at the transfer route again.

3. The Illini are probably going to be in the bottom half of the conference rankings, unless they have a best-case finish with Sneed and Banks. No one in the conference is going to catch Michigan State, and I think they’re getting five-star forward Miles Bridges as well. Iowa just landed four-star big man Tyler Cook. Ohio State is a likely landing spot for five-star point guard Kobi Simmons. Penn State has done very nice work. The conference as a whole is off to a fantastic start in this class.

4. No, all of his visits are suspended indefinitely. I wouldn’t bet on him visiting Illinois even after he gets things going again. The Illini have to be happy with Te’Jon Lucas and not do anything to make him pull back on his commitment.

1. I know your love for Poole but what's the latest with Verge? Haven't heard much of hit lately.

2. Also any chance of the guys in Indiana coming to Illinois? – AshfordCF1

1. There really isn’t much going on with him recruiting-wise recently. He has to stay on track in the classroom and stay out of trouble for him to have opportunities at the next level. So that is the focus for him right now. Illinois has done a good job with him to this point.

2. They’ve offered a handful of guys over there and Groce has made them a priority. Obviously, Paul Scruggs and Kris Wilkes are the two that come to mind. I think both are tough lands. Scruggs is probably more likely than Wilkes, and I know he was impressed by his visit this summer. It helps that Michigan State has their point guard of the future in Cassius Winston. Kentucky will be hard to beat if they want him, though. And you can’t forget that Indiana has been recruiting him since he was in 7th grade. The Illini are going after Jaren Jackson Jr. and Malik Williams as well. Those won’t be easy battles either, but it looks like Groce is willing to put in the effort.

1. Has Groce been working out DJ Williams at PG? Same question about others (and is there an expectation that others will rotate in at the PG spot, e.g. Aaron Jordan, JCL)? 

2. Any update on 2017 visits and in-homes? – swilliam

1. Yeah, Williams has been getting work at the one. Groce said a few weeks ago that Williams and Malcolm Hill will compete to be one of the three options at the spot. I know Groce talks a lot about wanting to teach freshmen just one position. But Williams certainly has the versatility to play at a variety of spots.

2. Groce visited Paul Scruggs and Jaren Jackson Jr. on Tuesday. He also went down to Texas on Monday morning to see four-star shooting guard V.J. Bailey, and he watched Canadian shooting guard Nickeil Alexander-Walker in Tennessee that afternoon.

How are we sitting with Nojel Eastern? What kind of efforts are the staff putting in? Haven't seen much about him other than that he is 6'6 now -- Thinking he might be the best guard 2017 has to offer in our state. Seems not much going on linked to Illinois, though. – atillini

His recruitment has been pretty low key since he got hurt in the spring. I think Illinois has put themselves in position to contend as this thing heats up. They were the first high-major program to offer him. They stayed in contact with him throughout the rehab process and they went up to watch him in open gym last week. It’s going to be interesting to see how things play out on the court during the high school season in terms of the priority list. But I know Illinois and a handful of other Big Ten programs will be after Eastern. The big question is how he stacks up to guys like Da’Monte Williams, Jordan Poole and Alonzo Verge.

1. Any upcoming on-campus visits for 2017 or 2018 recruits that you think may be in the works?

2. I realize that Tim Finke is exploring his options with recent visits to other programs (Northwestern and Indiana among others).  But how do you think the Illini are sitting with him?  Does he want to get out of Champaign for college?  Can you see him going to a rival B1G school where he may play against his brother and hometown team? – illiniparkie

1. I know Christian Negron wants to get to campus soon. Jordan Poole wants to come back and actually see a football game. Paul Scruggs wants to take a return visit but not sure when because of his football schedule. I’m sure there will be others.

2. I think Illinois is in a great spot with Tim Finke. Obviously, he knows what Illinois has to offer so you see him checking out some other places. He’s made sure to let people know that he isn’t a lock to Illinois because he wants to make his own decision. I could see him going somewhere else within the Big Ten like Ohio State. But it’s so early right now. Ultimately, he’s not going to be a shoo-in for the Illini but they’ll have a lot to sell with the opportunity to play with Michael and be a hometown star.

1. What are the biggest needs in the 2017 class?

2. Who are we showing interest in for the 2018 class? 

3. How is this staff being perceived on the recruiting trail these days? Is there concern that they may not be here in 2 years? Are they building a good rapport with in state coaches and influencers? – GallopingGhost77

1. The biggest need is down low, especially if the Illini can’t get a long-term option like James Banks in the 2016 class. Leron Black and Michael Finke are the only current frontcourt players on the roster who will be on the 2017-18 team. So the staff really needs to add some bulk to that group.

2. The Illini have offered Tim Finke and the Missouri combo of point guard Courtney Ramey and big man Carte’Are Gordon. Canadian star forward Simi Shittu has an offer and so does shooting guard Keshaun Saunders. Illinois has also shown strong interest in Simeon point guard Kezo Brown.

3. I think they are perceived as one of the hardest working groups in the country. I don’t think most are worried about the staff’s stability. But the thought is out there in some places. I’d say that they are received very well by the in-state coaches. The staff has a lot of likeability as a unit. Everyone knows that they need to produce more on the court. The program has been thought of as a rebuilding project, but these next two years are really crucial to show results.

1. Love the recruiting scoops, but can you talk about some of the strengths and weaknesses of the three freshman who will playing Day 1 (AJ, DJ and Finke?). Are there previous Illini players who had games similar to these three?

2. On the same freshman train of thought, when will we hear more about JCL? I think most Illini fans are thinking that this is a red-shirt year for him. – IlliniDave34

1. It’s no secret that Aaron Jordan’s biggest strength is shooting the rock. But what you’re also getting is a guy who makes smart plays and he can be versatile. Biggest question with him is whether he can come in right away and make shots. Sometimes good shooters struggle during their freshman year. He also needs to add more strength to his frame, which you could say about any freshman.

As for D.J. Williams, his strength resides in his skill and ability to do a lot of things well. He is comfortable in different situations, whether it is handling the ball, shooting from the outside or going to the basket. His major weakness has always been his lack of aggressiveness and overall inconsistency. But he has worked hard to get better in that area and reports have been very positive on him through workouts.

The report on Finke was pretty simple when he got to the collegiate level. He has a nice jumper and he can extend the defense with that aspect of his game. On the flip side, he is not very athletic and he needed to add bulk to his frame to play down low. To his credit, Finke has really transformed his body over the last year. He can be effective in the pick ‘n pop game, but he still needs to show he can rebound and defend at the Big Ten level.

As for comparisons, I don’t always like to use them if they feel forced. I do see some Joe Bertrand in Williams when you look at versatility. The other two are hard for me. Closest thing I could come up with for Finke was a cross between Mike Tisdale and Jack Ingram. With Jordan, I think you’re hoping for some Kevin Turner in his game. A guy that won’t make huge contributions right away, but can turn out to be a pretty darn good player and certainly shoot it from the outside.

2. I’ve been told that we’ll probably hear the news early next month. Illinois basketball media day is on Oct. 8 and I wouldn’t be surprised if we find out around then.

Any shot at James Banks at all with the LaLu connection? What about if Brown goes to Texas, does that help us at all with Banks? – jaybarr21

The Illini will get a shot at him. They’ve made him a top priority and the staff has been up to La Lumiere multiple times in the last few weeks. Banks is taking notice of that and it sounds like he will visit Champaign soon. That will give them a chance to impress and show that they should be in the mix the rest of the way.

Brown isn’t a true center, and Texas needs a lot of help down low after this season. So Shaka Smart could easily sell Brown on playing the four and Banks playing the five.

Are there any good JC POWER FORWARDS available? Derek you were right about JC centers. – majgardner11

A couple good ones have come off the board recently with Emmanuel Malou going to Iowa State and Arlando Cook going to Nevada. Former Xavier commit Melvin Swift (Trinity Valley) is still available and has an offer from Memphis.

From a personal standpoint, did the Simpson commitment affect you differently than other Illini targets who have gone elsewhere? I'd imagine that for someone who lives/breathes high school recruiting, it has to be frustrating to do all of the research/scouting/reporting and then have the kid go to a school that wasn't even in his top 4. – ToughNTogether

The overall dishonesty of that recruitment was frustrating when you look back on it. It’s not something that is uncommon elsewhere, but it was taken to another level in this situation. One last curve ball didn’t surprise me, but I didn’t expect it to happen like that.

1. Board mythology holds that failure to prioritize one of either Evans or Brunson at the PG position cost us both.  Did Groce repeat that mistake, failing to prioritize one of Sneed or Simpson at the Xavier position? Or is Sneed still in play now that Simpson's dad has committed to Michigan?

2. Chris Collins is clearly the best coach in the Big 10.  Groce clearly is the worst.  How many National Championships would Collins have won for us by now if Thomas had hired him?  How many five star recruits would Jerrance Howard have landed for us?

3. I hope Groce makes the Dec 2 game against ND a huge recruiting event - every 4 and 5 star recruit in the state (and St. Louis) needs to be there.  Is that the plan?  Maybe we could have a Kansas University style "Financial Planning Night" for recruits and their families.

4. I am 100% in post facto Crystal Ball predictions, and right now I am calling Sneed to Illinois, Xavier, or K. State.  I can't see KSU being a real option.  Or are they?  Have you also heard that playing time at Illinois is a concern?  That would by typical Illinois - players good enough to scare off recruits but not good enough to win an NIT game.

5. Can Eastern play point at the next level?  With the injury he hasn't been in the news much - who will be the main competition for him?   Where is he on the staff's priority list relative to Goodwin, Poole, etc.?

6. Will there be any backlash from the usual suspects in Chicago for giving Moore's position to an outlander or for backing off of Norvell?   Or does it not matter because the top Chicago kids are never coming to Illinois regardless?

7. Will any current Illini play professional basketball in a country that uses the English alphabet? – ParkStreet

1. Sneed is definitely still in play. The staff did the best they could with a dual visit. Didn’t have to prioritize one over the other because they play different positions.

2. Guessing you hit CTRL + S for the sarcasm font on this one. I’m going to say zero for both questions. First one needs no explanation. As for the second one, I think Howard’s recruiting abilities are generally overrated. A lot of coaches could recruit well at Kansas and under Bill Self.

3. Yeah, they’re going to try and get as many top targets there as they can.

4. I’m doubting the Kansas State possibility as well. As I wrote above, I’ve heard that the Illinois camp sees it coming down to them and K-State. But the buzz is picking up for Xavier. I have heard that Sneed is wondering about the playing time on the wing. But if it is between Illinois and Xavier, Sneed would have to sit behind Malcolm Hill or Trevon Bluiett for a year depending on where he goes.

5. You don’t see very many 6-foot-5 point guards, but I definitely bought into his playmaking ability when I saw him last summer. Eastern’s recruitment was pretty low key during his rehab. Many expected Michigan State to be big players but they have their point guard in Cassius Winston, and they have a future pro in Josh Langford at the two. I think there is still a lot to unfold in this race, as Eastern will have an opportunity to show where he belongs on priority lists. For Illinois, I’d say Eastern is behind Da’Monte Williams, Jordan Goodwin and Jordan Poole right now when you look at backcourt targets. He was behind Alonzo Verge as well but that situation has become murky.

6. There are some people in Chicago that will take shots at this program whenever they get a chance. Moore and Norvell are two of the top five 2016 prospects in the state. So some will just look at that and rip Illinois for not getting it done…Again.

7.  I’ll go with yes.

Predict who will be the first player from the class of 2017 to commit to Groce and when will that happen? – aberger

Jordan Goodwin during the Big Ten season this year.

1. Who is going to start at the 1? Is Lewis good enough to start relative to Tate? Relative to the rest of the conference?

2. When will Tracy decide on applying for a medical redshirt/extra year? – TheBeastisback

1. My money is on Jaylon Tate to start the season as the point guard. Need to see Khalid Lewis play before I can make a true judgement. But from what I’ve heard, he is more athletic, a better defender and will shoot higher than eight percent from three. Tate has the advantage as a distributor and he has experience in the system, which is why I think he gets the early nod. The point guard position is pretty good in the Big Ten with Yogi Ferrell, Melo Trimble, Bronson Koenig, Derrick Walton Jr. and Bryant McIntosh. I like Nate Morris quite a bit at Minnesota, and Mike Gessell is solid at Iowa. Whether the Illini are playing Tate or Lewis, they are going to be near the bottom of the conference when it comes to their starting point guard.

2. I’m guessing he will officially make that decision after this year has concluded. But I’m sure he will have his mind made up before then. Right now, it seems like he has every intention to try another comeback. The question is whether it will be in Champaign or somewhere else.

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