USA Today // Jerry Lai

Werner's Whits: Jones, injuries, hoops and Rick George

Illini Inquirer publisher has thoughts on Julian Jones, the injury report, the start of the college basketball season and Rick George

One positive of the Tim Beckman era - one of the few - was that his players stayed out of the police blotter. But freshman linebacker Julian Jones has made headlines this week for the wrong reasons. Jones was booked in Champaign County Jail on Wednesday and arraigned on Thursday for charges of sexual battery and simple battery stemming from an alleged incident in his home state of Georgia during the Illinois bye weekend of Oct. 16-18. Jones will remain in jail until extradited to Georgia. Obviously, this is a serious charge and puts Jones' Illinois future in jeopardy, though he will get his day(s) in court. The team has suspended Jones indefinitely, pending the investigation. There are more serious implications of this incident, but there is a football side of this. Jones had played in eight games this season mostly on special teams, including the three games since this alleged crime was committed.  The long, athletic, fast linebacker likely would have competed next season for the starting job vacated by departing senior Mason Monheim. If Jones were not to return, Tre Watson (who will be a redshirt sophomore next season) and LaKeith Walls likely will compete for the starting spot. The Illini need more speed in the linebacker corps, and Jones was expected to add that.

There were a few interesting omissions from the Illinois injury report released on Thursday. H-Back Tim Clary likely will return after missing one game with a leg injury, but he still has a club covering his hand injury, limiting him to strictly a blocker. True freshmen Jamal Milan and Caleb Reams are no longer on the injury list either after being listed as "OUT" for most of the season. Reams, a tight end, has not played yet this season and will not play this season. He will redshirt. Illinois also does not plan to play Milan. The talented freshman defensive tackle played in the season opener -- out of necessity due to an injury to Teko Powell and Joe Fotu's early-season suspension -- but suffered a knee sprain and has sat out since. The Illini will pursue a medical redshirt, meaning they feel they have a good case. To receive a medical harship waiver, a player must play fewer than 30 percent of the season due to an "incapacitating" (in other words, season-ending) injury, which must occur before the second-half of the season. All of these requirements must be proved with documentation, including medical documentation.

College basketball tips off tonight! And Illinois has a tough one against North Florida, a team that returns most of its top players from its first-ever NCAA Tournament team. The Ospreys are overwhelming favorites in the Atlantic Sun and have a dynamic point guard, Dallas Moore, and a dangerous, versatile scorer in 6-foot-8 wing Beau Beech. Illinois should be able to score -- especially 6-foot-11, 270-pound center Mike Thorne Jr. -- against the Ospreys, who will have a small lineup with 6-foot-11 center Romelo Banks out with an injury. But UNF, which shot 38.1 percent from three last season, will test Illinois' questionable defense. KenPom projects a 75-68 Illinois win. That sounds about right, but this is one of the tougher openers for Illinois in a while. I'm with Derek Piper, Illinois needs its star, Malcolm Hill, to play like a star.

If you would've told Groce a month ago that Leron Black and Jalen Coleman-Lands would both be ready for the opener, he might have done backflips. Both Black and Coleman-Lands likely still won't be 100 percent with their conditioning early, but both are great talents (as you saw with JCL's 20 points in the exhibition) -- and now Illinois will have both for every game this season, including the opening  two games against 2015 NCAA Tournament teams -- a big question mark just a few weeks ago. Even if Black plays just 15-20 minutes on Friday, he will be a big boost to the Illini's toughness, energy and physicality on the glass.

There's a lot of speculation about what Groce must do this season, especially with a new athletic director on the way. In a word: progress. This is a pretty talented, but pretty young, team that at full strength should make the NCAA Tournament. Of course, injuries threaten this team early in the season and the Big Ten is just a loaded beast. Progress for some might mean simply an NCAA Tournament berth. But is it progress if Illinois misses out on the NCAA Tournament by one game but is very competitive in the Big Ten and has landed a few key 2017 recruits to build on top of a promising young core? There are many forms of showing progress. You know it when you see it. We'll see if we see it by the end of the season.

As of yesterday, neither Colorado athletic director Rick George nor his representation had been contacted by Illinois. But he would definitely listen. George is happy with his job at Colorado, a power-five program on a gorgeous campus. But the pull of his alma mater and his homestate -- where his five siblings live -- would be strong. Some powerful Illinois people support bringing George back to Champaign-Urbana. Illinois would have a good chance of getting this done -- if they play it right. If...


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