Piper mailbag: Dec. 16

Lead basketball reporter Derek Piper answers your Illini hoops questions in his mailbag.

What's going on with Jordan Goodwin? I thought he was almost close to a verbal during the fall?

It feels like things are at a standstill with him. Goodwin called the Illini his leader back in June, and I think they’ve held that position to this point. The hope was that they could push it along further and secure a commitment. Earlier this fall, I pointed to the Notre Dame game as an opportunity to get him in that State Farm Center environment and make the move. But it didn’t work for his schedule to come over. He’ll be back sometime this season. I think the Illini are still in the best position to land him, but as is the case with other top 2017 targets, they have to find a way to convince him to jump on board early. Frankly, their on-court showing hasn’t helped their cause. Goodwin told me back in August that he could see himself deciding by the end of his junior season.

Finke has the best pro potential on this team. More true or more false?

I’d say it is more true than it was just one month ago. Finke has plenty of people excited with his offensive production and what kind of player he can become at that end of the floor. He put a ton of work in during the redshirt year and over the offseason to get to this point. The key is how his body continues to develop going forward. He has to be a guy that can rebound marginally and hold his own defensively. Right now, I’d still say that Malcolm Hill has the most pro potential.

Haven't heard much at all about 2017 recruiting. Is this a product of the time or year, or are we starting to see recruits that once favorited Illinois back off because of Groce's uneasy future and uninspiring coaching results?

You could call it a combination of things. A good showing out of the gate would have helped the effort to push things along. But the start to the season has been more of a burden. Recruits and their camps certainly are wondering about the vacancy in the athletic department and what that will mean for Groce and this staff. That being said, it is still relatively early. Most recruits are focused on their high school season and taking that next step on the floor. But it’s no secret that Groce needs some momentum to get rolling in that class to solidify his future.

There's been some speculation that certain higher ups are no longer happy with Coach Groce, and that the UIC embarrassment in front of 5k fans was a last straw for some. Any truth to those rumors? Will Coach Groce need a miracle run to the tourney to save his job?

There has been significant chatter since Saturday’s showing on the court and in the stands. It was not a good look for the program. The amount of doubters have grown by the week. But I think the jury is still out until the Big Ten season plays out. Personally, I don’t think Groce’s status hinges on getting to the NCAA tournament. That does seem like a miracle hope at this point. But the Illini definitely have to be competitive and show improvement. That – coupled with the start to the 2017 class – will be determine Groce’s fate.

I used to love these things ... now, with so much turmoil in the DIA and the poor performance within the program, the only things I can think to ask are things that Jeremy couldn't possibly know

-  Will Leron Black be able to be healthy this year

-  Will Groce trust the freshman enough to sit Austin

Without those two things (and the improvement in defense for Frosh it implies), it's a long season without much to discuss.  Recruiting seems dependent on coach.  Coach seems dependent on results, unless he can somehow get a huge class to commit early.

You make a good point about recruiting. The lack of results and growing frustrations around the program are making things more difficult on that front. As for Leron, it’s hard to tell how close he’ll get to 100 percent. My brother played at Eastern Illinois and suffered a meniscus tear after his junior season. He played his entire senior year at less than 100 percent and ended up suffering another tear. I think this will be a continuous issue for Leron throughout the season and it really comes down to managing it the right way. Some rest right now will help him get the swelling and soreness down, and he should look quite a bit better when he comes back. But it remains to be seen how he will recover from game action – and especially quick turnarounds.

The majority of the fan base is waiting for the freshmen to earn Groce’s trust enough to limit Austin’s usage. That is obviously the goal, and this staff is well aware of how Austin hurts them at the offensive end. It’s really on the freshmen to limit their mistakes and really get a grasp of things defensively. Until then, Groce is going to feel like he’s forced to play Austin.

In your opinion, who is the worst defender on the team?

I think Finke has shown to be a big liability down low against tough matchups. But the right answer is Jalen Coleman-Lands. He makes a lot of mental mistakes when it comes to over-helping, leaving shooters and knowing where to be.

Why do you think it is taking so long for this team to gel defensively? (Please don't say freshmen and transfers). You see other teams with freshmen and transfers that can pick up defensive schemes rather quickly. What makes Groce's system so much more difficult?

I wish I had a better answer for you. Mixing lineups and relying on freshmen have been a big reason. I don’t think there is anything about the system that makes it more complicated to master. It’s a personnel matter, as far as I’m concerned. You can point to the way the team has been constructed. The Illini had two really good defenders last year in Nnanna Egwu and Rayvonte Rice. Now, those guys are gone and there isn’t anyone to fill their shoes. A walk-on transfer should not be your best perimeter defender. Some of it is not taking enough pride in that end of the floor and some of it is not getting guys who excel at that end. I think every analyst has been trying to wrap their head around this issue. Outside of the reasons above, I don’t think even this coaching staff has an answer.

Do you think Groce reacts enough to the new game plans rolled out by the opposing team in the second half of each game? Seems like other teams are adjusting to the Illini and not the other way around. Hence the second half debacles.

This has been a highlighted issue for a while. It’s fair to say that the Illini haven’t had answers for certain adjustments. We’ve seen teams switch to zone in the second half and the offense goes stagnant. We’ve seen complete defensive breakdowns. Some of it is making the proper adjustments but a lot of it is lack of execution. The Illini got good looks in the second half against Notre Dame but they just couldn’t convert. On the other side of the ball, Demetrius Jackson overcame a slow start to catch fire in the second half. The Irish weren’t really doing anything differently – that was just a good player making plays. This team has had crippling stretches, and those repeated struggles makes you think about in-game adjustments. But it really comes down to executing for 40 minutes and having a sustained effort. The Illini have gotten leads and relaxed, and they’ve also come out of the gate lethargic in other instances. Effort and intensity issues should not happen. I should probably add that it would be easier for the Illini to avoid collapsing stretches against good teams if they got more consistency from their supporting cast. Just having two guys carry the bulk of the load only takes you so far – just look at Nebraska last year.

Do you think Malcolm Hill is a First-Team All B1G player? I think he is a good third-team due to his inability to lead and take over games.

All-conference selections are typically numbers-based, along with some consideration to team success. Malcolm has some pretty good stats right now. He is third in the conference in scoring (17.1 ppg) and he is No. 12 in assists (3.9 apg). That being said, I don’t see him being a first-team selection this year. Denzel Valentine and Jarrod Uthoff are essentially locks right now. I’d expect A.J. Hammons to be the pick at center, and you could very well see two point guards with Yogi Ferrell and Melo Trimble. Caris LeVert will likely draw heavily consideration as well. Right now, I’d project Malcolm as a second-teamer.

Assuming Illinois misses the tournament again: Does the new AD forces Groce to make staff changes? Or what do you think will happen?

It’s hard to predict with a good amount of certainty – since we don’t know who the AD will be. But I think you’d expect some kind of change to be made after missing the tourney three years in a row. Anyone will tell you that makes sense in theory. And having Dee Brown on campus and ready to hit the sideline adds to that. However, it’s not really a secret that Groce is a very loyal guy. If he gets the opportunity to stay, I could see him telling the new AD that he needs his staff intact to see it through – especially with the established relationships in recruiting. But on the flip side, you have to ask this question: If the AD is dissatisfied enough with the results of the staff, what stops him from replacing the entire group instead of just one assistant? My best guess right now is that Groce will either get to stay and it’ll be on him to decide whether to adjust the staff, or the AD will decide to find a new head coach.

Harry Froling any chance? Also anything new with the Indiana kids?

I wouldn’t hold your breath with Froling. But I will admit that it’s harder for me to have a grasp on his situation being an international target – and I think the staff feels the same way. He is taking an official visit to Arizona. Can the Illini compete with that program? His sisters play basketball at SMU, and he’ll visit there. But the Illini will have him on campus in January and that at least gives them a chance. Froling has said that playing time is at the top of his priority list. That was a big reason why Illinois ended up with Mike Thorne Jr. – instead of Kansas or Kentucky – and they can offer the same opportunity to Froling. It’s too bad that he won’t be able to see Thorne play in person on his visit, but the way Groce utilized Thorne is a sell to talented big guys. However, Arizona and SMU can show him far better on-court success.

As for the recruits in Indiana, there really isn’t much new. Obviously, the Illini had some La Lumiere targets – Jeremiah Tilmon, Brian Bowen and Tyger Campbell – at the State Farm Center against Notre Dame. But I’m sure you’re referring to Indianapolis guys like Paul Scruggs and Kris Wilkes. Those are top-level talents in that class. I don’t think Illinois has the on-court success to land those guys right now.

Does Groce have strong backers on the Board of Trustees? Will Groce be fired at the end of the season if (when) we miss the NCAA tournament this season?

Can’t say I have a good answer for you on the first question. As for the second part, I don’t think it is as cut and dry as NCAA tournament or bust. I’d expect the new AD to judge Groce more based on where things are headed than what has happened. Of course, how the season closes out will say a lot about the direction of this program. And I think the 2017 class will play a huge role. Groce needs to have tangible results there (i.e. commitments), instead of saying we’re in good shape with a lot of guys.

If Groce does get fired, does that mean in all probability that we do not get Damonte Williams? Tilmon? Others?

It is always difficult to start from scratch on recruiting when a new hire is made. That being said, Groce was able to keep Hill and then go get Nunn. I think Illinois is going to have a hard time getting Tilmon regardless of who is the head coach. He’s going to have plenty of great options. The only way Illinois gets him is if they put together a monster class prior to Tilmon’s commitment. I think Groce getting fired would open things up for Da’Monte. His camp is tight with this staff, and erasing that foundation would change a lot. But of course, his dad is always going to be an Illini great and Champaign will always be close to home. It’s a safe generalization to say that firing Groce will hurt the 2017 recruiting effort. But making a splash hire could make up for that.

Is Illinois interested in getting back in with Nick Rakocevic and is he/would he be receptive? He seems to be having a pretty decent start to the year from what I've heard.

I know the staff is aware of the numbers he’s been putting up. But they folded on Rakocevic quite a while ago and I don’t see that changing.

When does Kipper expect to be on campus?

Classes start back up on Jan. 19. I’d expect him to arrive either the weekend prior to that, or even the week before.

Elijah Thomas intends to transfer from Texas A&M. Any chance we land him?

I’ve been told that Elijah already had a plan in place for where he’s going, and it’s not Illinois.

Any word on why Elijah Thomas didn't see more playing time?  Too much talent in front of him, or has he struggled at the college level? 

He was stuck playing behind Tyler Davis, who was higher ranked and he committed in the 2015 class before Elijah. Once the competition picked up, his minutes took a big dip. I wouldn’t be surprised if there was some in-house tension that didn’t help his cause either.

Why is the team struggling so badly with inferior teams and why can't Groce do anything about it?

I can give you a list of reasons that have been rehashed over and over. The easy answer is that good teams handle inferior teams, and Illinois isn’t a good team right now. It’s obvious that they have a habit of playing to the competition. They got up and competed against Iowa State and Notre Dame. But they played uninspired basketball against Chicago State and UIC. I think that points to a lapse in leadership. It also points to a lack of identity and killer instinct.

If you had to choose one specific moment over Groce's tenure that has been the most damaging to Illinois basketball, which would you choose?

There are obviously plenty of options, but my pick would be Quentin Snider decommitting back in 2013. Went from landing a top 50 player at PG (and a top-10 overall recruiting class), to two more years of disappointing recruitments and non-ideal PG play on the court.

Great question, and I think you gave the best possible answer. That one was a major blow. With Snider, you had one of the top-10 point guards in the class. Groce and his staff were flying high on the recruiting trail at that point. They felt so good about Snider that they stopped recruiting Jalen Brunson. I don’t really have to tell you what happened next. But lacking a Big Ten quality point guard has drastically crippled the growth of this program. It is the most important position in college basketball. Over the last two seasons, the Illini have had Jaylon Tate, Ahmad Starks and Khalid Lewis – instead of Quentin Snider.

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