Piper mailbag: Jan. 18

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

When do you expect Thorne back?  Also, any update on Leron?

Groce said on Monday that Thorne has been practicing the last few days, and that he could be available to play against Indiana on Tuesday or this weekend against Minnesota. It all depends on how his knee responds. His conditioning is a concern as well. It sounds like Thorne is almost 15 pounds heavier than his weight at the beginning of the season.

My best guess is that we don’t see Leron again this year.

Long term, is Finke a 4 or a 5?

It depends on the personnel. There are only so many true centers in college basketball. Finke isn’t ever going to fit into that traditional category. But I’d say it’s likely that he continues to play the five in his collegiate future. Finke said on Friday that he plans to add 15 or 20 pounds to his frame this summer.

Where do we stand with our top targets for 2017? And just for fun... What is your 2017 "dream" class?

The Illini got a nice start with Javon Pickett’s commitment on Saturday. I wrote about the other targets in an update HERE. As for a dream class…

Da’Monte Williams
Jordan Goodwin
Javon Pickett
Derek Culver
Jeremiah Tilmon

Do you expect there will be a staff change and if so, who do you think would go and who do you think would get the nod?  It seems like the last few recruiting visits Dee Brown met with the athletes.

Dee has definitely stayed involved, and it’s not a secret that he wants to be on staff. But as I’ve said before, Groce is very loyal to his guys. If the new AD gives Groce another year, I’d expect him to try his best to keep the staff intact. This 2017 class is extremely crucial and this staff has already laid that groundwork. But if an assistant were to leave, I think Dee would be right at the top of the list for a replacement.

What's your take on the Rako recruitment?  The timing of Rako's texts and tweets seemed odd stating that the ILLINI weren't recruiting him so he was done.  It was my understanding that he wasn't in a rush to make up his mind.  If he was so high on the ILLINI as others have stated (Kedrick Prince for one) why was he in a rush to drop them?   Were there outside influences?

It was unfortunate perception-wise for how things played out. As I’ve said before, Illinois had no interest whatsoever over the summer when Rako was struggling and dealing with attitude issues. But by no means were they the only ones who felt that way. Then, he started to put up big numbers this season and show signs that he had turned a corner. Rako wanted Illinois to get back in the picture and they began to show interest again. After watching him at the Proviso West holiday tournament, Rako expected that Illinois would turn up the heat. He said that Illinois told him they would be in contact but he claims they didn’t call or text him after that.

So he became frustrated and decided that showed their true feelings about him. From Illinois’ perspective, they were just showing basic interest and weren’t in any hurry to make a move. It’s hard to blame them for taking a wait-and-see approach, especially since Rako said he wasn’t going to make any decisions until after the season. But when it boiled down, the two parties had different expectations for each other.

Early days, but how does Kipper look in practice so far?

I’ve heard good things about Kipper since he has been on campus. Groce talked about him on Friday at the press conference. He said Kipper has really fit in nicely with the team, and he has been playing well on the scout team. The Illini staff loves his athleticism and toughness. He is a good defender, and he is an athletic slasher to the hoop. They want to see him continue to develop his jumper. But they’re excited for what he can bring in the future.

I would be interested to hear more about what drills they are running in practice?

Follow-up on that, what was specifically done in practice the past week during "hell" week as I think Malcolm put it versus prior weeks?

From my conversations with the staff and people around the program, I was told that they didn’t really do much different in terms of practice planning (drills, etc.). The difference was the intensity level. Groce and the staff pushed them hard. They didn’t accept anything less than 100 percent effort. The biggest difference was that they focused more on competition. They turned every drill into a head-to-head battle. And there was less walk-through and more 5-on-5 competition.

Do you expect anyone to transfer this spring?  What are you hearing on Kipper and what is his true height?  He seems a lot taller than 6"5'.

It’s hard to speculate on whether someone will leave at this point. Obviously, Mike LaTulip is planning to transfer. Outside of that, my best guess at this moment is that everyone will be back. But we see a long list of transfers every year.

Kipper Nichols was measured at 6-foot-6 when he arrived on campus.

Derek, do you ever hear anything about Brandon Miller? I would be happy to have him back on staff

Don’t hear much of anything concrete about Miller’s situation since he left Butler. He has elected to keep his situation private. There have been rumors about why he took his leave, but nothing I can really speculate on. He was great in his role at Illinois. But at this point, no one knows if or when he will get back into college basketball.

With Rako's comments, are the Irvin's or some other interests trying to facilitate additional reasons for a "change" in coaches, presumably to push someone they know for the job.

I don’t think so. I definitely wouldn’t connect the Irvins to this one, since Rako left their program over the summer to play for Indiana Elite.

Given the lack of 2017 commitments, and Froling's comments, is there anything that can be done to get recruiting momentum short of an AD being hired and giving a vote of confidence to Groce in some manner.

The Illini are hopeful that Javon Pickett’s commitment will help to build some momentum in that class. But other targets are still cautious of hopping on board until Groce’s situation becomes solidified. And the only way that happens is for an AD to be hired and voice his support of Groce for the future.

Do you think after the Michigan St game Groce was holding his guys more accountable? It seemed like he was getting after his guys a lot more during the Purdue then he normally does.

Just wondering if you thought the same thing and if so will he stick to it?

No question. Groce and his staff were very hard on his players in practice following the MSU game. They still demanded a lot from them after the Purdue win. I would expect the same to continue after the disappointing showing against Nebraska on Saturday.

What is the current status of the Jeremiah Tilmon recruitment?

There was some recent buzz that Tilmon is looking to speed up his process and get this thing done soon. The people I talked to said that it is probably just talk. I know the Illinois camp wasn’t under the impression that he was close to making a decision. I’ve heard before that Tilmon’s mom doesn’t want this process to draw out too long. That is understandable, as it tends to wear on the family and the player. But as of right now, it appears not much has changed. Illinois has done a good job to remain a legitimate contender, but that only holds if they can keep the momentum rolling with Jordan Goodwin and possibly others. That seems like the only way to legitimately compete with the likes of Kansas and North Carolina.

How does Groce view Dee Brown? Will Dee become an assistant coach next season? Does Dee even want to be an assistant coach?  And assuming we don't make the NCAA Tourney this season, and assuming we will have hired a new AD ... won't Groce be forced to replace at least one of his assistant coaches?

I think Dee and Groce have a very good relationship. Dee wouldn’t be around the program (at practice, recruiting visits, etc.) if that wasn’t the case. He wants to be on this staff, and that’s not really a secret. Will it happen next season? That is a question that still doesn’t have an answer. If Groce is given another year, I think it will be up to him to make the appropriate changes to his staff. Knowing how loyal he is and given the established recruiting connections in 2017, I would anticipate him campaigning to keep his staff intact.

Would you bet a lot of money that Illinois will land our target PG, Damonte Williams? And separately, when will DWill verbal to Illinois, IF he actually decides to come to Illinois? Does that verbal require a statement from the AD that Groce will be retained as head coach?

I’m not typically one to bet a lot of money. Learned my lesson at a blackjack table in St. Louis a few years ago. But yes, my bet would be on Da’Monte ending up at Illinois. But that is highly predicated on Groce returning and having the new AD on his side. I talked to Da’Monte’s camp over the weekend, and was told that they aren’t going to make that move until Groce’s situation is solidified. If Groce survives after this season, I could see Da’Monte committing in the spring.

Derek, in your opinion, is Te’Jon good enough to start from the get go next year?

That’s a good question. Te’Jon is having a great senior season, and the Illini staff can’t wait to get him in uniform. It may depend on how Tracy Abrams looks after coming back from yet another injury. It’s really impossible to project what he will be able to bring. But even then, I could see Te’Jon taking over from Day One. He has shown that he can score, while being a high-level facilitator and a good defender. Jaylon Tate will be back, but you know what you’re getting from him. The key with Te’Jon will be how quickly he is to grasp the system and translate his game to the next level.

Any possible 5th year transfer targets you hear off already for PG/C?

Not really. Some names will probably get thrown around as we get closer to March. In most cases, those things are difficult to project ahead of time.

Is Leron Black remaining in relatively good spirits considering the setback, which I'm sure is frustrating?

It’s been pretty tough on him. Everyone knows that Leron is a competitor and wants to be out on the court as much as anyone. But he is always smiling at games and trying to hype up his teammates.

Is there any concern about collective "buy-in" from the team?  After 3 years with limited success, is there any questioning of the coaches from the older players, or divisions among the staff which can show up in some of these bad showings?

I haven’t heard or seen any signs of that. Obviously, the struggles and unfortunate breaks have been frustrating for players and coaches alike. But I think the team is still pretty close-knit.

The obvious question is will Pickett really have any impact on the trio of downstate guys, other than making it easier to follow than leap alone?  I know he's on a different AAU team, so how is Javon that close with those guys?

Javon is very close with Goodwin. They talk all the time and have a lot of respect for each other. I think that is where his commitment makes the biggest impact. Javon is also pretty good friends with Tilmon, and Tilmon told me that Javon has already started recruiting him to come along. Da’Monte isn’t as close to those guys. He has a good relationship with Goodwin, but I don’t think they talk all the much. But Da’Monte certainly understands the type of player that Goodwin is and what they could do together. So I don’t think Javon does much for Da’Monte’s situation, but if Goodwin jumps on board as well, then I think the dominoes really start to fall.

While stars can be "overrated", in reality we have only received one commit from a 4 star in over 2 years now.  Do you feel any of the 4 stars we're after care enough to attempt to keep the staff by committing early?

It’s really a “chicken and the egg” scenario. I know the staff is still hopeful that they can get Goodwin to commit before the season is over, which would help their case immensely. But it remains to be seen if they can actually get that done. As for a guy like Da’Monte, he wants to know that Groce is going to be there before he pulls the trigger. And I think that is probably the majority opinion for most of their targets.

Do you get tired of all the negativity from some of the posters?

That’s just the nature of the game. Fans are passionate and they have expectations that go along with it. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion.

How many staff members will be returning? Groce has to make some changes.

If Groce gets to keep his job, I think the AD will leave it up to him to make the appropriate changes. But as I see it right now, I think he would push to keep his staff intact mostly because of the recruiting relationships that have already been established in the 2017 class.

We all know about the main targets for 2017 (Williams, Tilmon, Goodwin, etc) but who are some other people that you really believe Illinois has a chance at? I'm hoping there are a few big men and a point guard or two in that mix.

If we’re talking about guys from outside Illinois, the first one that comes to mind is four-star big man Theo John from Minnesota. The Illini got in early with an offer this summer, and Paris Parham has done a good job there. John is a top-100 guy, and he has offers from Iowa, Kansas State, Marquette, Minnesota and Nebraska. It won’t be an easy one to win, but Illinois has a chance there.

Illinois believes they have a fighting chance with four-star PF Derek Culver from Ohio. Culver is currently ranked No. 33 in the Scout rankings. The Illini have chased been in the mix with some talented guys from Ohio (Carlton Bragg and Xavier Simpson), but they weren’t able to land them.

I should probably mention Canadian wing Christian David as well. The Illini were the first to offer him back in July 2014. Dustin Ford has watched him a lot, and he certainly knows how to spot talent up there. David is 6-foot-6 with a lot of skill and bounce. He also has offers from Baylor, Creighton and Oregon. The Ducks have been a pipeline for Canadian hoopers. Illinois could be a factor, but you only need so many wings.

The last one that I’ll add is four-star PG Trent Frazier from Florida. Ford went down to see him last week, which was the second time he’s visited him since the end of AAU. Frazier also has offers from Baylor, Florida, Kansas State and Mississippi State. But the Illini got in early with an offer, and they’ll see what they can do.

Derek, have you run across anyone that has known of another coach that has had the bad luck with all the injuries Groce is dealing with?

I’ve talked about this with quite a few people. Even asked our guy Brian Snow, who watches the national scene as closely as anyone. He said he’s never seen anything like this.

Do the coaches emphasize rebounding technique in their own end?

I’m assuming that you’re talking about offensive rebounding. This was a topic of discussion at Groce’s press conference on Friday. Personnel is the key issue here. With Thorne and Black out, the Illini simply don’t have adequate rebounders on the inside. You could try to combat that by attacking the offensive glass with your perimeter guys. But that leads to easy transition buckets the other way if you are unsuccessful.

If you were the newly hired AD, would you give Groce another year?

If so, under what terms?
-  Make the Tourney or else?
-  Require an assistant change for a better bench strategist or big man coach?
-  No terms at all?

If I decided to keep Groce for next season, I would leave it up to him to make the appropriate changes to his coaching staff. I think that is the best move for recruiting, and it also gives him a fair shot to do what he sees fit. That said, I think it would be pretty clear that he can’t miss the tournament for a fourth straight year (assuming they fall short this season).

At this point in time, I would give Groce next year to see what he can do in the 2017 class and allow him a chance for success next season with the majority of his talented pieces coming back.

Most of the discussion seems to be revolving around downstate recruits, but the one that really intrigues me is Christian Negron.  He is described as a plus defender and rebounder, with a high motor.  These are attributes that should allow a player to be a solid four year contributor.  What would you project for his career, and how do you evaluate the mutual interest at this point?

Negron has a lot of upside at the next level with what you just described. He is that kind of complementary piece that good teams need. What makes him even more impressive is that he’s starting to develop an outside shot. He scored 29 points on Friday and hit four threes. As you said, I think he will be a really nice four-year player. There are only so many guys who can rebound, block shots, finish around the rim, and also step out and knock down some shots.

I think there is a considerable amount of mutual interest right now. Negron was at the game on Saturday, which was his first trip to campus. He told me over the summer that he grew up as an Illini fan, and he likes Groce quite a bit. But Iowa is out in front for him right now. They have come at him the hardest, and that was the first place he visited. Butler just got into the mix as well, and the offer list isn’t going to stop there once teams get a look at him on the EYBL circuit. The key for Illinois is to come at him harder, and hopefully land his AAU teammate – Da’Monte Williams.

How would you help prepare Finke better for next year?  He is going to be a very good player the next 3 years (hopefully), but sometimes it appears conditioning is an issue.  Has the staff done anything to improve his form while running end to end?

This upcoming offseason is going to be the difference maker. Finke needs to add more strength and continue to get in better physical shape. I think the biggest issue with his conditioning right now is that he’s being asked to bang down low with more physical and athletic big guys. That becomes pretty taxing over the course of the game. He’ll be spending a lot of time with Adam Fletcher once this year is over.

What is the national perception of Illini hoops? What do outsiders think? Groce is in over his head or has gotten completely screwed with bad luck and injuries?

If we’re talking about this season alone, I think people see Illinois as a team with a few talented players but also big flaws because of key injuries. But that’s if they’re even talking about Illinois. The Illini haven’t exactly been relevant on the national front for some time. Prior to this year, I think the narrative has been that Illinois is fairly average, prone to inconsistency and doesn’t have a point guard. But I will say that a lot of people on the national front think Groce is a good coach.

Like any program with traditional success, Illinois is a place that can win big again with the right infusion of talent. And it’s much easier to make a drastic change on the recruiting front in basketball than it is in football. But there is always a time clock to get things done before the program becomes stale. The Illini are sitting at that borderline.

Doesn't everyone think we need a more "national" staff? Our recruiting radius seems to be 45 miles. It'd be nice have some connections to widen that radius.

You want to be able to recruit your own area, especially with Illinois being considered one of the best states for basketball around the country. Obviously, a lot of that has to do with Chicago – and the Illini haven’t exactly hit many home runs up there in recent memory. So I get where you’re coming from in that sense. But Groce’s staff hasn’t been afraid to recruit outside of the state. They just haven’t been able to seal the deal as often as they’d like. Maybe an assistant with ties elsewhere could help that cause. But the 2017 class is a perfect opportunity to build what you need with talent in your area.

Does the staff work on defense and stopping dribble penetration during practice? We allow a bunch of layups because our guys can't stop their man from going right around them. It is tough to watch.

Defense has been Groce’s top focus in practice all season long.

Assuming Groce & Co get next year and it’s a make or break year, do you think they'd run some players (e.g. Tate, Morgan) off the team in favor of 5th year transfers or talented freshman?

I don’t see it happening at this point. If we assume that Abrams is back, the Illini still have one more spot for next year. You could then use that on another fifth-year big man.

How can Groce get another sub-standard year without having to make changes to his staff? If changes are made what are chances Deon Thomas or Dee Brown could join up?

If the AD decides to stick with Groce, that essentially means he is putting his full trust in him for another year. At that point, it’s really up to Groce to decide what to do with his staff. You’re not really helping him by forcing a staff change. But if one is made, I think Dee Brown and Roger Powell would be the two that make the most sense.

Is Christian Negron close to committing somewhere in the near future? And if he was ready to commit, would Illinois accept his commitment now or would they rather wait until others decide?

I don’t think Negron is close to making a decision. Playing on the 17U circuit this summer is going to bring him a lot of attention. If Negron was ready to commit to Illinois now, they would take it in a heartbeat.

What are you hearing on Derek Culver?

I talked to a source about Culver last week. I’m hearing that the major players right now are West Virginia, Illinois and Xavier. It sounds like Purdue could become a big factor as well. West Virginia seems to be in the lead at this point. And I think his list of suitors is only going to grow this summer being that he is already a top-50 talent in the 2017 class. The Illini are expected to stop in to see Culver in the next week or so.

I understand that John Groce has had to deal with unfortunate situations (injuries, suspensions, etc.), but in your opinion, can he win at Illinois?

I think he can. People are quick to forget that he was just a play or two away from the Sweet Sixteen in Year One. There are talented pieces on this roster, and they’ll be back next season. Having Leron Black back healthy should be big. We don’t know what to expect from Tracy Abrams, but he can only help. In addition, Te’Jon Lucas and Kipper Nichols will provide value. So I think this roster is set up to make a run to the NCAA tournament next year, and they can really take off after that by capitalizing on the 2017 class. Groce and his staff have put themselves in a position to do that. They need the support of the new AD to help that effort.

Illini Inquirer Top Stories