Illini Inquirer's Derek Piper answers your Illini hoops questions

You had the questions and lead basketball reporter Derek Piper has the answers in the Illini hoops mailbag.

How serious is Michigan as a contender for Jordan Poole? He seemed all into us but obviously after his last two visits there, I have to believe we've lost some footing

I don’t think the Illini have done anything to lose that position. It is more about what Michigan is doing and how he fits their system perfectly. They made a great move by making him their first offer in the 2017 class, and they can pitch him on being the next Nik Stauskas or Caris LeVert. I am fully expecting Poole to commit to the Wolverines on Friday.

If you could rank the top ten recruits in order of the staff's desire to secure a commitment from in order of importance (1 - most desired, 10 - least desired), regardless of class, what would that list look like in your eyes?

All signs point to Jordan Poole committing to Michigan on Friday, but I’ll give you the list leading up to that.

1. Jeremiah Tilmon - 2017

2. Jordan Goodwin - 2017

3. Jordan Poole -2017

4. Da’Monte Williams - 2017

5. Tim Finke - 2018

6. Paul Scruggs - 2017

7. Derek Culver - 2017

8. Carte’Are Gordon – 2018

9. Nojel Eastern - 2017

10. Harry Froling – 2016

Are there any rumblings of a late visit before the early signing period that the staff has kept fairly quiet to date, or can we expect Lucas to be our only player signing in this period?

I’m sure they’re working to get something done, but doesn’t sound like anything is in place at this moment.

How is Tate's jump shot?

It is certainly improved, but still not his strong suit. He has much more confidence in it, which is a big piece of the puzzle. Sounds like he has good days and bad days with it. He can hit an open three and also pull up around the free throw line off the bounce. If he can make shots like those in games, that would be huge. Safe to expect a marginal difference instead of a night-and-day change.

How good is our PG transfer, and what's your bet as to who is our starting PG after the first few games?

Khalid Lewis has impressed the coaches and his teammates in the short time he has been with the program. Malcolm Hill told me at Big Ten Basketball Media Day that Lewis is like the “dad of the team”. Lewis is an ultimate competitor and he refuses to lose—whether it is a drill, scrimmage, game or race to the water fountain. As for his on-court skills, he is a good defender due to his length and athleticism at the point. He is also proving to be a very good passer.

Still hard to get a read on who will be starting at point to open up the season because I don’t think those inside the program know yet either. I’ve been told that Lewis is more high risk, high reward, while Tate is steadier with what you’re getting. I think both will play around the same amount of minutes to start the year, so the starting title may be arbitrary. If I had to pick right now, I’d give a slight edge to Lewis.

Is Malcolm looking a lot better than last year regarding his foot speed and jumping? I suspected that he was too heavy last year, and it seems that he's slimmed down.

Yeah, Malcolm looks a lot more athletic out there. His body is pretty cut this year, and he is certainly quicker and more explosive. I think that paired with an improved motor and overall fire about his game has him primed for a big leap forward.

Is JCL practicing a lot or is he just being slowly brought back?

He’s been doing a lot of stuff on his own. I know he was doing some shooting in the other gym this weekend when the team was having practice. I’m sure he is working on his conditioning as well. The plan is to have him practicing with the team soon.

Is it likely that DJ Williams and Aaron Jordan play very little as a freshman?

With the way injuries have piled up, I think you have to expect the exact opposite. Both will play a lot out of necessity.

Are those of us who were usually screaming at Egwu to play his position going to be screaming at Finke for hanging out at the periphery on both defense and offense?

I’ll give Finke credit for transforming his body and looking the part down low. Post defense has been a big focus for him this offseason, and you see him spotting up on the block offensively as well. That being said, I think he is still more comfortable away from the basket with his offensive game. He’ll create matchup problems with that aspect, and I like him in pick ‘n pop situations. The key for him continues to be rebounding and defending around the hoop.

Is the AD mess hurting recruiting?

Groce admitted at Big Ten Basketball Media Day that the mess in the athletic department has been a topic of discussion when it comes to recruiting. People want to know what is going on there. I don’t think it is having a big effect when it comes to losing out on targets. But I think it could certainly play a role with the timing of the 2017 class. If Mike Thomas is gone soon, that puts even more uncertainty into Groce’s status beyond this season. I would think that decreases the odds for early commitments, which you’re hoping for with guys like Da’Monte Williams and Jordan Goodwin. Unfortunately, the start to the 2017 class may be the ultimate key to Groce proving his case for staying in Champaign—if the results aren't there on the court.

What can be made of Derek Culver’s visit this weekend?

The Illini have done a good job in this one, as they were one of the first programs in on Culver before he blew up. Dustin Ford has a good relationship with Culver, and he has known Culver’s high school coach for a long time. The visit was a success for the Illini, as Culver came away impressed. He got to see his first college practice when he was there, and he also spent time bonding with the players and coaching staff. There is still a long way to go in this race. West Virginia and Xavier have been major players early on, and other Big Ten programs have offered as well. Culver also has Michigan State and Arizona showing strong interest.

How much zone do you think this team will play this year?

I’m told you can expect a “healthy mix” of man and zone. You could see more zone early on since the Illini will have a shallow bench. That helps to prevent some foul trouble. In general, I think you’re going to see a lot of teams mix defenses this year because of the 30-second shot clock. The goal will be to force opponents to waste time resetting and then force a bad shot. Of course, the defense will always vary based on the opponent and what makes their offense tick. Given the choice, I think Groce would like to play man in most cases. But he will be without his best interior defender in Nnanna Egwu and his best on-ball defender in Rayvonte Rice.

Is Maverick Morgan capable of being a backup center?

Morgan has had some good days in practice over the last few weeks. There’s no question he has some moves in the post and he can knock down some short jumpers as well. Can he play with more toughness? Will be comfortable with the speed and physicality during big games? Can he play defense, and if so, can he do it without fouling? Illini fans don’t like the answers he provided to those questions last year. We’ll have to see if that changes.

Are there any 2016 center targets left?

The Illini are still pursuing Australian center Harry Froling, who is the only 2016 big man target with an offer right now. Assistant coach Jamall Walker flew to Australia recently to visit Froling. It remains to be seen how big of a player they will actually be there. Canadian big man Kalif Young is also an option, but he does not possess an offer to this point.

What happens to Groce and Illinois bball if a new AD is brought in?

Groce and this staff will have to show a mix of promise and results on the court, while also making headway with the 2017 class. If this team doesn’t make the NCAA tournament, then that 2017 class becomes even more crucial.

I just want to be celebrating St. Patrick’s Day (NCAA tournament Thursday) with orange on, percentage they make the dance? One reason why they make it and one reason they don't?

Most people had Illinois’ tourney chances as a coin flip before all of the injuries. Now, you’re looking at being without Kendrick Nunn and probably Leron Black to start the season. Unfortunately, you open things up with a tough slate. Your best freshman, Jalen Coleman-Lands, has missed valuable time on the practice court the last three months. And of course you’re without Tracy Abrams. I’d say that’s a pretty good reason for not making the tournament. The Illini could take some early losses for not being at full strength. And when guys come back, you worry about the continuity and lack of offseason growth because of guys being out.

One reason the Illini will make the tournament is Malcolm Hill. He looks like an all-league player and I expect him to put up points in bunches. That being said, I’m probably setting the odds around 35 percent given the unfortunate string of events.

Do you think we will sign anybody else for 2016?

They have to find a way to get it done. Based on Kalif Young’s offer list, you would think that Illinois can get him if they want him. They have to figure that situation out soon. I’m not putting much hope in Harry Froling ending up at Illinois at this point. If they don’t connect with either of those guys, I would look at the JUCO route. Obviously, the Illini can test the transfer waters again but there are no guarantees. Furthermore, they have to find another long-term solution down low.

Seems as if the last few teams have had a bonding issue where some separate at peak times, is this team one that can bond together and improve as a team?

“Playing for each other” has been a major theme for this squad this offseason. All the players will tell you that this is the closest knit group since they have been here. Malcolm Hill is stepping up in the leadership role, and the Illini have been very impressed with what Khalid Lewis is bringing in that department as well. This team has been through one heck of a bumpy ride this offseason and that isn’t going to change once the season gets going. There is a different feel with the chemistry of this group, but that will really be tested here soon.

What is the process for "recruiting" 5th year transfers? Does our staff already have some targets identified? (Assume yes but they would not confirm). Assuming contact would be forbidden by the NCAA but is there a proxy used for communication? What is the earliest date that transfers can be discussed by player and new team, end of season or end of spring semester?

It’s almost impossible to project the fifth-year transfer field at this point. Maybe there are some guys that you have heard about going this route. But you can’t have contact with these players until they are granted a release by the school. That doesn’t come until the season is over. There are backchannels that can be explored. For example, I have heard of high school or AAU coaches of players reaching out to programs and letting them know that one of their former players will be available. But in general, it is usually all wait and see.

My question is what line-up should we expect when DJ and/or AJ are on the floor?

Especially with Kendrick Nunn out, I think you could see a lineup with both of those guys and Malcolm Hill at the four. If Hill is at the two/three, either of those guys could play the opposite wing position. The status of Jalen Coleman-Lands will play a big factor in this as well. I know some would like to see Williams play some point forward and go big with the lineup in spots.

1 – Williams

2 – Jordan/JCL

3 – Hill

4 – Finke

5 – Thorne

That would certainly create some interesting matchups. But you have to wonder about Williams’ ability to take care of the ball. For now, I think you see them rotated on the wing.

I'd also like to know what Groce is doing to scout our conference partners better and make it more difficult to scout us.

Not sure that he is doing anything all that different when it comes to scouting. The assistants (Ford, Parham and Walker) split up the games on scouting. Then each of those guys are paired with a member of the support staff to help break down film with sets, tendencies, etc. The hope is that the Illini will have some different looks to show this year, especially since bringing on Darren Hertz from Florida. But for the most part, the teams in the Big Ten know each other like the back of their hands.

Is there any bad blood between the Illini and other Big Ten teams (or coaches) that our players get up for more than others?

That’s a good question. I think the bad blood that is felt between Illinois and other Big Ten teams is probably more through the fans than this particular team. We haven’t seen much bad blood on the court with specific matchups. The team obviously understands the rivalry with Indiana. But beyond that, I think it’s all the same. Maybe you’ll see some extra fire against Michigan given what they did to Illinois in the Big Ten tournament last year.

Does Aaron Jordan redshirt? He is NOT ready from we saw at the coaching clinic this weekend.

Can’t afford to redshirt him with the injuries that have struck this team. The definition of "ready" changes with the circumstances.

Illini Inquirer Top Stories