Illini report card
What went right
The Illini put their point guard drought to rest by landing four-star playmaker Te'Jon Lucas in September. Everyone in Illini nation knew that John Groce and his staff had to find a long-term solution at the position in this class. They did that by getting Lucas, who is a really good fit in Groce's ball-screen offense. Lucas was a late bloomer on the national scene, but he made people take notice in July. The Milwaukee native proved to be one of the best distributors in the country with his quickness, court vision and ball skills. He's working hard to improve his outside jumper as well.
Groce came in with a different approach this fall when it came to the point guard pursuit. A year ago, Illinois left their point guard hopes up to a pair of McDonald's All-Americans and came up empty-handed. This time around, they knew they couldn't afford to wait around and be too picky. The Illini program has overlooked quality point guards in the past such as Fred Van Vleet and Tyler Ulis, who turned out to be better than anything Illinois has seen at the position in a long time. Maybe that changes with Lucas, who was overlooked quite a bit himself.
"We're excited, obviously, today that we're officially adding Te'Jon Lucas to our family," Groce said at the Siging Day press conference. "Just excited about who he is as a person and we love his family. Great family, great character, a guy that I think understands that he is a point guard and plays that position in its truest sense and fashion...Big upside, big ceiling. I think we've gotten one of the best point guards in the country in that class."
Groce also made it a point of emphasis to add more athleticism and defensive prowess on the wing in this class. They put quite a bit of time and effort in pursuing Sneed, but Kansas State ultimately had more immediate opportunities to offer him. While the Illini missed on Sneed, they have found their response by signing Ohio wing Kipper Nichols on Wednesday. Nichols fills out the checklist much like Sneed with his length, athleticism, motor, slashing ability and defensive qualities.
"He has joined us. We're looking forward to Kipper joining our team," Groce said. "He can play a lot of different positions. He can defend a lot of different positions. I'm most excited though about how much he loves to work. I think he's a guy that has exceptional upside as well."
What went wrong
The in-state recruiting landscape did not do the Illini any favors in this class. In one of the weaker years in Illinois, there were just two prospects ranked in the top 100 nationally: Charlie Moore and Rapolas Ivanauskas (Northwestern commit). Simeon wing Zach Norvell had an impressive junior season and the Illini looked to have the inside track with him. But Norvell was underwhelming for most of the AAU season, as the Illini turned their primary focus on the wing to Xavier Sneed. Illinois also went after Hinsdale South big man Barret Benson (Northwestern commit) with Groce visiting him quite often down the stretch of the high school season. But Benson did not show all that well on the AAU circuit either, and his lack of athleticism became a glaring weakness.
You can also look at St. Joe's power forward Nick Rakocevic, who was the top-ranked 2016 prospect in the state heading into his junior year. But he completely fell off the map with attitude issues and bad play with the Mac Irvin Fire this spring. The Fire did have one player who met and exceeded the hype in the 2016 class, which of course was Moore. Illinois made him their No. 1 priority over the summer and made sure not to miss a game. The Illini staff continuously expressed that he would have the first crack at being the guy. Moore had a very good relationship with Groce and Paris Parham, and he seemed to be leaning towards Illinois at one time. But when he delayed his timeline due to his father's health issues, the Illini couldn't afford to wait.
The biggest issue overall is that Illinois has not been able to land a big. They aimed high early on with offers out to Marques Bolden and Tony Bradley (North Carolina commit), but they had no luck there. In other spots, they got to the party too late. The Illini made Tyler Cook a priority, but they didn't offer him a scholarship until this past February. Cook ended up committing to Iowa, who offered him a scholarship following his sophomore season. Illinois was late to the party elsewhere with guys like Joey Brunk (Butler commit), Nick Ward (Michigan State commit), Clevon Brown (Vanderbilt commit), Jayce Johnson (Utah commit) and James Banks (Texas commit).
The Illini still have spots to give but can they find the answers? Australian big man Harry Froling is the only 2016 frontcourt target with an offer, although that doesn't look like a situation the Illini can bank on. They have expressed interest in Canadian big man Kalif Young, and the staff watched him closely during the evaluation periods in July. But the Illini have not pulled the trigger on an offer. Young has a big body and he moves pretty well for his size, but he is a project at the offensive end. Illinois may elect to go the transfer route once again.
There are lessons to be learned in every class, and the Illini could have done certain things differently in 2016. But to be fair, it is much easier to look back in hindsight, and they've already put themselves in a desirable spot in the 2017 class. They also were successful in answering their biggest question mark in 2016 with Lucas. One important takeaway, however, is that the Illini need to continue to improve when it comes to evaluating and targeting quality big guys.
It's hard to play catchup when you don't have the NCAA tournament or NBA Draft pedigree. Big guys can be the hardest to identify because they are a select group and aren't typically highlighted in AAU basketball. But still, the Illini must find a way to get it done. The hope is that an NCAA tournament bid and a successful season out of Mike Thorne will provide big boosts to their frontcourt pitch.
Big Ten report card
Best player: Miles Bridges (Michigan State)
Not even Skip Bayless and Stephen A. Smith could find a way to debate whether Miles Bridges is the best commit in the Big Ten. Bridges is a flat out scorer and rim-destroyer on the offensive end. He's the type of player that makes you afraid to leave the couch when he's in.
Best class: Michigan State
Tom Izzo will probably never coach in the NBA, but he may know what it feels like when his 2016 class arrives on campus. Josh Langford and Bridges are future NBA wings, while point gaurd Cassius Winston and big man Nick Ward are also top-50 prospects.
Underrated player: Te'Jon Lucas (Illinois)
Many coaches and recruiting analysts couldn't have told you who Lucas was back in April, but that certainly changed by this fall. Lucas still has more to show, and he'll be sure to make teams regret taking a pass on him.
Overrated player: Nick Rakocevic
Once a top-100 talent and bonafide Big Ten target, Rakocevic still has yet to find a landing spot.
Most surprising get: Xavier Simpson (Michigan)
In one of the wilder recruitments in the 2016 class, Michigan landed four-star point guard Xavier Simpson without being one of the teams on his final list. A secret visit to Ann Arbor locked things up, while Illinois and Wisconsin were left to feel played.