Werner Mailbag: Jan. 5

Illini Inquirer publisher Jeremy Werner answers subscribers' questions of Illini basketball, football, recruiting and the AD search

(From UIEightyThree) I know we have only had a few games in the newly remodeled SFC, but I haven't seen any articles talking about pros/cons of the re-do. What is your sense from talking to fans of what was done? It looks much better on TV, but there is a lot more than courtside/stadium shots to this project..............

The difficult part is that the renovation isn't finsihed. It's really about 70-75 percent done. A lot of the initial work was done underground, updating the guys of the arena. Part of that work will allow  summer concerts and events with a new air conditioning to be in place by summer of 2017.

Pros: Aesthetically, the building looks much improved on the inside. The orange and blue touches (seats specifically) take away the stale, bland feel of the pre-renovated arena. The student seats are much closer and more on top of the court, giving the court a more cozy feeling, and there is a higher quantity of students on the floor, greatly improving the atmosphere. Unlike Indiana's Assembly Hall, SFC is a cavern. It feels less that way now. The suites and loge seats are really great options for fans/donors with a bit more money to spend and should generate more revenue when the team is winning. Two entrances (a new Eastside entrance added to the Great West entrance) is helpful.

Cons: The arena is still a construction site right now. The concourse is still dusty and lacks finishing touches right now. Also, I've heard some fans complain about navigating the concourse. Most of the bathrooms on the top floor are not yet done. The locker rooms are not yet complete. The Illini practice facility -- which now needs upgrades -- is not attached to the arena. Most power-five schools are starting to go this route. It just makes it easier for the players to have to enter just one facility. It'll take a lot more fundraising to add a practice facility adjacent to the arena.

I like the new arena. But in all honesty, I always would have preferred a complete new construction. But there is an emotional attachment and a lot of history in the former Assembly Hall. The arena is much improved and will look/operate even better when its complete by this time next year. But I think a new build (which would have come at a similar price) would have been better.

(From majgardner11) I'm a big Groce backer. As a former college and hs coach, I can't imagine how he has put together game strategy. With that said I truly believe he HAS to make a staff change and he had better go big. What are your guys thoughts?

I tend to agree with this sentiment. Injuries are a big part of this season's shortcomings. Is it completely? No.

I really liked that Groce switched some things up this summer. Darren Hertz came in after a long time under one of the best college coaches of recent memory, Billy Donovan, and adds a different perspective. Strength and conditioning coach Adam Fletcher adds a different perspective (he was a really good MAC post player). I think the Illini staff, and most coaches, need a different perspective every once in a while. It's good to get a fresh set of eyes on the players, the team, practices and strategy.

But Groce has to admit that after four years, something just isn't completely clicking with this staff. Yes, they've had a bunch of bad luck. Yes, they've landed some really good talents. But four years in, the team still has big holes (in the post and at point guard) and Groce is 24-31 during Big Ten play.

Groce is very loyal to his guys. But he shouldn't be loyal to a fault. His predecessor, Bruce Weber, was.

Dee Brown's presence is a big one. It's probably awkward for the current assistants, even if Brown is just trying to help in the way he can. I think Groce should take the chance on him. Will he pay immediate dividends in recruiting? Maybe not. Would it hurt? Doubtful. An even more proven hire -- though not as sexy -- would be Brown's former teammate, Roger Powell.

(From tmiller33) We have heard about Kendrick Foster and possibly TSD transferring have you heard any other names? If not how many schollies will that leave for 2016 class?

I have not heard any new names transferring out. I expect Illinois to sign about 22-24 players for the Class of 2016. I may have a more firm number for you soon. They currently have 19 commitments, but I don't expect all of them to sign with Illinois.

(From TheBeastisback) How does FB recruiting look for the fall? Any possibilities of late pickups?

I'm assuming you mean pickups between now and Signing Day (Feb. 3). If so, then yes -- there better be. Illinois needs instant impact players, especially in the back seven of the defense. Illinois lost three starters in the secondary and doesn't have proven players behind them, even if Jaylen Dunlap and Caleb Day have plenty of size and athleticism. Illinois also lost a linchpin of its defense the last four seasons, Mason Monheim, at linebacker. T.J. Neal had a very good junior season but the status of top candidate to replace Monheim, rising sophomore Julian Jones, is still uncertain due to an ongoing sexual assault charge and lawsuit in Alabama. Rising sophomore Tre Watson has had some flashes but his speed is a question mark.

The Illini recruiting class will likely finish in the bottom three or four in the Big Ten. But they just have to find guys who can contribute early, a la Mikey Dudek, Ke'Shawn Vaughn, Desmond Cain, Jamal Milan, Geronimo Allison, Jihad Ward, etc. They also need last year's recruiting class -- Milan, Vaughn, Dre Brown, Gabe Megginson, Adam Solomon, Sam Mays, Patrick Nelson, Caleb Reams and Andrew Davis -- to make big impacts this season.

(From SWIllini) What stage is TB law suit?

As far as I know, Beckman hasn't officially sued the university yet.

(From ILLveteran) I know we probably won't have heard anything about the AD search, but if you could update us on what you're hearing or maybe who they're looking at, that would be great.

The application deadline is today (Monday). The next steps will be revealed to the applicants after that. I've heard interviews will likely happen this week.

The committee has a list of its candidates, but the search firm has taken over most of the details of the search now: background work, reaching out to candidates, etc. They'll then present their work to the committee and administration.

Not sure a hire will be done by Jan. 11 -- the date the Board of Trustees would need the contract by to approve it at the Jan. 21 meeting -- but that isn't absolutely necessary right now, either.

Many of the names I've heard are the names we've talked about for a while: Craig Tiley, Sean Frazier, Rick George (highly unlikely at this point), Jim Phillips (loves Illinois but loves his job, stability and may be the next B1G commissioner or NCAA president), Josh Whitman and Tom Michael. Others are getting vetted. . Uphill climbs to get the top job though, in my opinion.

Also, now that Cubit's staff is officially official, what are your thoughts on it?

I broke down many of my thoughts in a Whits column last week.

But here are a few quick thoughts: I think this staff is built to recruit better. I like that Cubit is going to a more aggressive defense. Illinois isn't fast enough and the Big Ten doesn't have enough great quarterbacks (especially next year) to sit back in quarters defense. I also think the staff is improved and more on the same page than the last few seasons. Three of the four hires (Paul Williams, A.J. Ricker and Tim McGarigle) have coached under Cubit before.

Can they overcome all their current challenges (two-year deal, big questions in back seven of defense, tough schedule, etc.) though? We'll know in 11 months.

(From Geo408) Who in your opinion will be the next basketball commitment?  Is anyone close at all? 

I have no idea. But the smart money says a few downstate prospects. Jordan Goodwin no longer seems like the most likely candidate even if Illinois still leads there. Illinois still is the clubhouse leader for DaMonte Williams and he could be the domino that Groce sorely needs. But maybe Illinois should push for Javon Pickett too. He's a Big Ten quality player and could give the program some needed buzz, even if it's less impactful from a PR standpoint than Goodwin or Williams.

But 2016 big man should be getting a ton of Illinois attention too. He's one of the best available Midwest prospects and fills a huge need in the post for the Illini.

Also, give some names of the football recruits which aren't committed that you believe we will sign?  Thanks! 

Fearless Forecast, eh? I'll go with Tre'Vour Simms, Mackenzie Nworah, Jeremy Level, Tre Nation and Colby Reeder (because he's my favorite Illini target left). They also need a wide receiver. I should have more on football recruiting in a Whits column in the next few days.

(From aberger) Which basketball players from 2017 will commit to UI and stay regardless of the head coach a la Malcolm Hill?  Does Groce have a strong chance to land Nick R. for 2016 and do you know what his timetable for a decision is?

Malcolm Hill really liked Illinois. He committed to Bruce Weber. But John Groce still had to re-recruit him. He had other options but Groce sold him on his vision. I think DaMonte Williams and Jordan Goodwin are pulled to Illinois regardless of the coach, but I think a new coach would impact Goodwin (Purdue is coming hard) more than Williams. Jeremiah Tilmon has developed a really good relationship with this staff. He's tough to get for Groce, but may be tougher for a new coach to get unless there's a previous relationship there. I think Illinois could still land a good 2017 class with a different coach, but Groce's staff has put in a lot of groundwork there.

(From Dcudds) Do you believe this Illinois football staff can do a better job securing in-state talent?

Yes. They are younger and have better ties in state than any Beckman staff. They are really trying to make inroads in the 2017 class (there are few 2016 in-state prospects remaining). But will they have the opportunity to capitalize on that work? They'll have to win some games and get some early commitments.

(From emmerich) Is there a reason why we continue to concede every offensive rebound? Every possession turns into a 1 and done opportunity.  I realize that having Black out hurts that somewhat, but Hill, Nunn, Jordan, and Austin are all capable rebounders from the wing positions -- when they don't immediately head to the other end of the court as soon as a shot goes up.  Do we really need to send 4 guys back on D?  This team needs to generate more opportunities.  In the past those have come from the defensive end, but we don't have that ability this year.

(From jonfec) What is the philosophy of the coaching staff regarding offensive rebounding? From where I sit they simply concede rebounds to the other team because everyone except who's playing center immediately retreats to the defensive end as soon as the shot goes up. This behavior is either coached in or ignored completely by the staff. In many cases long shots mean long rebounds and if the non-shooting guard/forward simply make their way into the lane they can easily pick up a long rebound or two per game which means extra possessions this team sorely needs. You don't need 4 people back to prevent fast breaks by the other team. I watch other teams crash the offensive boards and contest every 50/50 ball which is essentially what rebounds are. For a team so rebounding challenged why not coach the team to fight for the long rebounds and tip outs? They have no chance at these rebounds if they are already running to the other end as soon a shot goes up.

Interesting that this question came up twice. I get it. The Illini's lack of rebounding is infuriating right now. As I wrote, they're getting outrebounded by 10 boards per game the last ten games. But there are two very good to elite rebounders (Mike Thorne Jr. and Leron Black) sidelined with injuries.

I usually see two guys crashing the offensive glass: Michael Finke and Malcolm Hill. Now, they're not very effective because both lack the size and hops of their competitors. When Illinois had Thorne and Black, they just had the bodies to actually pull some of those down. If you're going to send someone else to crash the boards, it's likely Kendrick Nunn. He's one of the few players with enough strength and athleticism to poke some out.

Also, Illinois is not in a position where they can give up free buckets in transition. They can't afford to allow teams to outlet quickly and get an advantage on the fastbreak -- which Illinois is doing itself when it grabs defensive rebounds. Yes, Illinois needs to improve its rebounding. In my opinion, it's a personnel issue more than a strategy issue.

(From aberger) What are the specific responsibilities for each of the assistant coaches on Groce's staff?

Each of the three assistants has responsibilities for scouting. Each of the assistants has coaching duties for specific positions.

Dustin Ford coaches the big guys. Jamall Walker coaches guards and Paris Parham coaches guards and wings.

Each has recruiting territories. Each recruits Chicagoland and the state of Illinois, but Parham has a focus in the Chicago Public League (and now Milwaukee). Walker has a lot of ties in the St. Louis area and Memphis. Ford has connections in Ohio and Canada.

In-game, Groce relies heavily on Ford and the special assistant to the head coach (first Brandon Miller, then Ryan Pedon and now Darren Hertz) with Walker and Parham also weighing in. I said it then but Miller was probably the most overqualified non-recruiting assistant in the country during the 2012-13 season.

It's more of a true staff effort, though. The assistants provide Groce with their information, opinions and Groce makes the call.

(From CantonIlliniinNashville) What are your biggest pet peeves managing this site?

What cool perks do you now have that you did not before (because of your role as site manager)?

Do you ever have parents or coaches asking/persuading you to do stories/positive coverage on their HS player?

Interesting question.

I can say that managing message boards was not something I looked forward to. But thankfully, I inherited some good moderators who really work hard at it. They are very appreciative even if too many posters give them grief. It's a tough and thankless job. I think our premium board has a good culture, but it's tough when there hasn't been much good news lately.

We don't have many people trying to sway content. I've had a few calls from coaches on a few things, but they never tell me what to write or what not to write. Some parents/coaches may think their kid is better than perceived, but I haven't dealt with too many persuasion attempts there. We build professional relationships at Illinois, with coaches and with parents, but we are and will remain an independent web site.

The perk would be that I get to run a site my way. I choose and manage the content, something I've always wanted to do. It's cool to build something your own way, especially with all the avenues the internet provides (print, audio, visual, etc.). I've had to slowly build up credibility with fans, coaches and administrators, and I think taking over as publisher here has added to that credibility and allowed me to get closer to the program and give you guys even better inside information.

I will say that he hardest part of the job is changing people's opinions on paying for content. Yes, about half of our stories (usually breaking news or game recaps) are free. It drives traffic to the site, which drives some advertising revenue and some new eyes to the content. But when the internet came along, many newspapers decided to give away content for free. Many blogs -- with unpaid writers -- also give away content for free. That trained consumers to expect not to pay for content. Well, that's why you're seeing fewer and fewer employed professional journalists, which I think are still needed (especially in the news business). It's not consumers' fault. It's the media's fault for giving away that information. But very few successful business plans include giving away their product for free.

We at IlliniInquirer.com try to go to as many events as possible and work tirelessly to provide you with as much quality content as possible. That takes a lot of time and resources. Obviously, I'm not lecturing you guys. You're paying for IlliniInquirer premium (or are at least trying out the site on a promo deal). We can't say enough how much we appreciate that. And every day, I'm thinking of how to reward your hard-earned dollars with hard-earned, quality content. We know that Illinois winning would help us too!

I subscribe to a lot of content -- Sports Illustrated, Time Magazine, The Joe Sheehan Newsletter, ESPN Insider, fantasy baseball sites, KenPom.com, etc. -- because the content is worth it. I really believe we give you bang for the buck here, and will try to make it an even better value. I hope you agree, hope you mantain your subscription -- and really hope you tell your Illini friends about us (wink wink).

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