Piper mailbag: Feb. 15

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

I wanted to know what is happening on the recruiting front to add with TJL and Kipper for the 2016 class. I remember Derek saying Ford was going to check out Kalif Young around early January. Are there any new news on recruiting big men in the class of 2016?

Please give some names for a possible big and our chances for him for 2016.

I was told a weeks ago that Dustin Ford was planning to go see Kalif Young in the near future. To my knowledge, that hasn’t happened yet. Illinois hasn’t been a program that has been mentioned with him at all recently. The Illini watched him closely during the July evaluation periods, while his only offers were St. Bonaventure and Loyola Marymount. They could have been his first high-major offer, but they elected to wait. Since then, he has added offers from Auburn, Marquette, Pittsburgh and Providence. Duke, Indiana and Syracuse are among the programs who have expressed interest as well.

Providence had their entire staff in the gym watching him two weeks ago. Marquette just offered last week. So things are obviously heating up for him. It’s not over until it’s over, but it’s fair to wonder if Illinois procrastinated too long to even have a chance at this point. That was their decision. Young fits what the Illini could use down low considering that he is 6-foot-9, 250 pounds. He creates space in the paint, rebounds and he can finish around the basket. His offensive game will take time to develop, but he has the body to bang in the post off the bat.

Analyze that as you will. I heard not too long ago that Illinois was going to check in on Montverde Academy center Bruno Fernando. The 6-foot-10 big man is ranked No. 100 in the 2016 class. But it’s too late there. Fernando recently said he’s going to make a decision soon.

Three-star center Jordy Tshimanga is a name that jumps out to me at 6-foot-11, 270 pounds. As our own Evan Daniels wrote about him in an article last month, Tshimanga is an enforcer in the paint. He has a handful of offers, and he is planning to take visits to Nebraska and Pittsburgh. He seems like a guy who you could jump in late on, but the Illini haven’t shown any interest.

It’s safe to say that Illinois’ chances of landing a 2016 big are pretty bleak right now, and they’ll likely be active again on the fifth-year transfer market. That has its advantages and disadvantages.

If Groce is let go I know some names that have come up on this board would include Bruce Drew which sounds like a realistic option. How is he viewed as a recruiter?

Good question. Recruiting is a different ballgame at that level. It’s about finding fits to your style, beating your competitors and stealing guys that were overlooked by high-majors. We saw Groce do that at Ohio. Where they are different is that Groce had the experience of successfully recruiting as an assistant at the Big Ten level prior to being a head coach.

Drew has a very likeable personality and obviously knows the game (and played it) at a high level. He has recruited with success, while also bringing in a number of transfers. Three of the top five scorers on his team right now transferred into the program. Drew has recruited the state of Illinois pretty well. The top player on his team is Washington, Ill. native Alec Peters, who chose Valparaiso over Illinois State and Boston College. Peters is averaging 16.7 points and 7.8 rebounds this season.

Valpo also has Jubril Adekoya from Tinley Park, who was the Horizon League Sixth Man of the Year last season. So obviously Drew is very familiar with the area. He also got a steal with his sophomore guard Tevonn Walker from Canada. Walker is second on the team with 10.4 points per game.

Most people think he would recruit with success at Illinois, especially if he brought former Illini Roger Powell along and added Dee Brown to the staff.

If the AD were to encourage or even order Groce to hire a lead assistant with great experience in Xs and Os and player development, who might be a candidate?

Really good question. I just don’t have a really good answer. If there was a move to made, it be reasonable to assume that Groce would go with someone he has previous ties to. There are a lot of good lead assistants in college basketball, but most of them are at pretty high-level programs and would only make a jump to a head coaching job.

If Groce is let go, do you think Dee is going to be on the coaching staff?

Would make a lot of sense, but obviously depends on the new coach. I think it’d be a great fit if Bryce Drew was hired, and Dee and Roger are assistants.

What are the most likely commits to the football program from Illinois?  Any top 30 guys?

Basketball is my area of expertise. Jordan Goodwin plays football at Althoff. Does that count?

In your opinion with a new AD being hired relatively quickly, would a vote of confidence for Groce bring about a Williams commitment?

It seems likely that a new AD will retain Groce for another year. In theory that should help with the 2017 recruits, but the program still lacks momentum and buzz. Do you think the simple fact of keeping the staff will be enough to land the Goodwin/Williams types?

If Groce is given a vote of confidence from the new AD - do you anticipate any recruits hoping on board shortly thereafter?

Going to tie these all together. I think Da'Monte Williams would be the prime candidate to commit soon after Groce is retained. His camp has said that they want Groce to stick around. It seems like the only thing holding him back is this staff’s uncertainty. If that is erased, it should get done. But it’s up to Da’Monte and his family to decide if the timing is right. I don’t think he’d do anything until the high school season is over. As for Goodwin, I don't think it's that simple anymore.

If Groce is not retained, what kind of roster and recruit turnover would you expect to see?

I don’t know that you’d see much turnover on the current roster. The upperclassmen aren’t going anywhere. I would expect Jalen Coleman-Lands, D.J. Williams and Aaron Jordan to stay. But it’s hard to know for sure. The biggest potential change would be with Te’Jon Lucas. He would likely get a release from his letter of intent if he wanted it. Lucas loves everything about Illinois, but John Groce and Paris Parham were the ones that sold him. He could possibly take a look around, and I know Wisconsin would be glad to have him.

Top 5 head coach candidates, but list only gettable ones please.

I really want to put Archie Miller on this list. But it doesn’t sound like that is realistic. Would need more time to really think this through, but here’s the best quick list I could muster.

1. Bryce Drew (Valpo)
2. Jerod Haase (UAB)
3. Jeff Capel (Duke)
4. Leon Rice (Boise State)
5. Steve Henson (Oklahoma)

If Groce's "offense" is predicated on a point guard who can create and score, and since we don't have that, is there a reason why he hasn't modified his offense to fit the personnel he has on the team right now?

We finally got to see some modifications on Saturday at Northwestern with Malcolm Hill playing the point. I really like the move, and it probably should have happened sooner. But Groce felt more comfortable doing it after a bye week to prepare.

Where is Illinois in the Nojel Eastern recruitment?  He was the first 2017 in-state offer, but now his name comes up very infrequently in terms of priority targets.

Groce and Paris Parham were courtside at Evanston Township on Friday night to check out Eastern. He had 17 points, seven assists and six rebounds. The Illini have remained involved throughout the process. This recruitment is just lower key than some others. I think the injury last summer had a lot to do with that. Other recruits were the focus with them on the AAU courts and Eastern at home on crutches.

It’s also a product of so many teams being involved right now. I think Michigan State has positioned themselves at the top. Illinois is in pretty good. A lot of other programs in the mix and we’ll have to see how things progress during the AAU season.

Derek, how angry are you that Jeremy titled his recurring information piece to align with our future A.D.?  Werner's Whits--->Josh Whitman.  Is anybody even going to read Piper's Points anymore?  Will this lead to infighting at IlliniInquirer?  Really hope there is enough leadership to keep the ship moving forward.  Love the site and content.  

Thanks for the laugh. Jeremy obviously had some great foresight there. Makes perfect sense to have the boss of this site and the assumed future boss of the athletic department in the same title. I’ll let Jeremy lead and I’ll spot up on the wing with my points. Hope people keep reading. Points win games.

I know Groce gave out something like 7 scholarships on one day to 2017. Are we still going after all those guys and where do we stand with them?

They sent out offers to Da’Monte Williams, Jordan Goodwin, Justin SmithChristian Negron and Alonzo Verge all on the same day last April. Illinois is still involved with all those guys, although some are bigger priorities than others. Williams and Goodwin are at the top of the list. Both have been considered Illini leans during their recruitments. I think the Illini will get Williams, but Goodwin is going to be harder to get given that he wants to play out the AAU season and more programs are getting involved.

Negron is probably next in line. The Illini were finally able to get him on campus for the first time last month for the game against Nebraska. The staff has stayed in contact and they’ve watched him as well. Illinois and Iowa are at the top for him right now.

The last two are a little complicated. Verge is now playing at Arlington Country Day down in Florida. His recruitment has kind of been put on hold, as he has needed to put his full focus into academics, staying out of trouble and continuing to develop. There have been a lot of concerns about whether he will be in position to qualify. If he gets things straightened out, I think Illinois will be right there. As for Smith, it seemed like both sides cooled on each other over the summer. I think Indiana is in the lead there. Illinois has continued to remain involved and they’ve been up to Stevenson to watch him. But I don’t see Smith as being an Illini guy right now.

How are we doing with the 4 guys in the top 30 that we're going after?

The Illini have put in a lot of work with Jeremiah Tilmon. He has been on campus countless times. He has a great relationship with the staff, and he’s is close with Javon Pickett and Jordan Goodwin. The three have discussed teaming up at Illinois. North Carolina and Kansas are scary opponents for Tilmon, and now he has an offer from Michigan State as well.

Indy Hoosiers teammates Paul Scruggs and Kris Wilkes are both on this list. The Illini got them to visit over the summer. But I think they are on the outside looking in. Wilkes has Butler, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Purdue and Xavier all coming at him. Scruggs has Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Michigan State and Purdue. Illinois is still in the mix but they are long shots – in my opinion.

La Lumiere wing Brian Bowen is the other one. I was told this fall that Bowen is going to end up at either Kentucky or Michigan State.

If Groce is fired this year, what is his buyout?  What about after next year?  When does his bonus kick in?  Is it less expensive to fire him this year then next because of the bonus?

His buyout would be at least $1.2 million after this season - given a $400,000 base salary over three remaining years. That number would go down to $800,000 after next season. Groce is due to receive a $500,000 bonus if he is retained after next season. So technically, they could use the $800,000 buyout and not have to pay the $500,000 bonus.

If Groce is retained WILL he get to the Tourney? Will that be a fluke or a trend?

I believe next year’s team will make the NCAA tournament if they stay healthy. There’s a lot to like about the talent on that roster. Whether that starts a trend or not will really depend on the 2017 class. Groce will lose Hill, Nunn, Morgan, Abrams and Tate after next season. You have to be able to fill those gaps, and getting freshmen who are good enough to play right away is a big part of that.

How serious is Illinois' interest in Evan Gilyard?  I know he's low on the priority list as far as PG candidates go in 2017, but he looks like he's extremely quick, gritty, and tough.  He should be a really solid player wherever he ends up.  It appears as though Dayton is very high on him.  I think that says a lot.

Great point about Dayton. I love what Archie is doing with that program, and if he’s sold on him, that tells you something. I like Gilyard – just need to see him more. You said it though, he is super quick, he’s tough and he can score it. He outplayed Charlie Moore when Simeon beat Morgan Park.

I know Illinois has their eyes open to what Gilyard has been doing, and I’m sure they’ll track him over the summer. Given that you won’t have a true point guard on the roster outside of Lucas going into the 2017-18 season, I think Gilyard could potentially make sense as one of the five guys you bring in with that class.

The knock on him is size at 5-foot-9. But there have been some pretty darn good undersized point guards to come out of this state recently: Tyler Ulis, Fred Van Vleet and D.J. Cooper to name a few.

Along those same lines, is Groce recruiting Isaiah Coleman-Lands?

Yeah, he is certainly on the radar. I haven’t gotten a chance to see La Lumiere this year yet, but I know Isaiah has elevated his game. He can shoot it, which isn’t a surprise after seeing his brother. Isaiah has put up some good numbers in a handful of games. The Illini have remained interested.

Any updates on where we stand with Derek Culver? Last I read, we were in good shape. But with how this season had gone us, and how good West Virginia looks, I’m guessing we will have to make up a lot of ground to catch them. Also, could we take him and Tilmon or just one of them?

I talked to a source a few weeks ago who told me that West Virginia was in first and Illinois seemed to be in second right now. I’ve been meaning to follow up with Culver’s coach, so look for an update here soon. Groce watched Culver and Tilmon at a showcase on Jan. 24. The Illini certainly could take both of them with Pickett and four more spots available in 2017.

Do you know if the staff has ever looked to the Europeans for a player? Seems like Few at Gonzaga always has one or two on the roster.

Not really that I know of. Gonzaga does a great job of recruiting outside of the country. They really recruit a different way. I’ve never seen Few at an AAU tournament.

In your opinion, do you think the basketball program is a tourney team if the staff went into the season with the predicted roster coming into the season? Do you think the staff still had the healthy talent to make the tourney with the loss of Thorne, Black, TA and even Paul since he was suspended too late in the preseason to try to find a last minute transfer to add some depth in the paint besides Morgan (as well as dealing with random injuries to Nunn, Finke, JCL, Tate, Lewis)? I personally think many fans are being a bit over critical of the staff simply because 3 of the 4 players missed didn't play last year on the roster so it's easy to discount what those players would of brought to the team since we haven't had the chance to see them play with the rest of the roster. We have grown used to missing TA, we can only judge Black off his freshmen year, Paul never played, and most of Thorne's 20+ minutes games weren't available unless you streamed online (plus we were missing Nunn at the time). However you have more of an inside view.

We’ll obviously never know what would have happened had this team stayed healthy, but everyone can form their own opinion. I personally believe they would be a tournament team. Having Black and Thorne down low would have changed things immensely. And there have been other untimely injuries along the way, as you mentioned. This team played one full game at “full strength”, and that was without Abrams. They looked pretty darn good, and fought with Iowa State the next day.

Having seven guys miss 74 games combined is ridiculous. So to your question, no I don’t think those are circumstances that gave this team a fair shot at the dance. It’s fair to make critiques on execution, consistency, coaching, etc. But some people have been too blind to the obvious. I think that is mostly because past frustrations (i.e. last season’s collapse) have been compounded with another frustrating season and expectations not being met.

What is your opinion on the future of the roster, not just next year when we return the entire current playing roster along with Black and TA, but even moving forward when we lose Hill and Nunn and replace them with juniors in JCL, Finke, Black, DJW, AJ along with the 2016 class as sophomores? Do you expect us to still suffer?

If they are fully healthy, Illinois will have the roster to be in the top half of the Big Ten next season. I think they're an NCAA tournament team, and if things go right at the point guard spot, they could compete to finish in the top five of the conference standings. That also depends on some moving pieces at other programs.

Beyond next season, I like what I see. Groce has assembled a collection of intriguing pieces. Coleman-Lands is going to be a stud. Finke has a really high ceiling. Black is going to be productive. Williams has shown flashes of what he can become, and I still think Jordan can be a solid Big Ten player. Kipper Nichols adds some much-needed athleticism and defense on the wing. I think Te'Jon Lucas can be a nice Big Ten point guard, especially after a year under his belt.

So you have a foundation there. The next step is bringing in those guys in 2017 to really have a dangerous squad. The Illini have to be able to find another center. Finke can't be your only option at the position, especially when he's more of a natural four. I think that is a key focus point. Illinois also has to get another point guard behind Lucas.

I like the potential of next year's roster. After that, Illinois could become consistently good if they capitalize on the opportunity in 2017 and get their nucleus (JCL, Black, Finke, D.J., etc.) to develop.

I understand that hind sight is 20/20, but I wonder what happened with Austin Colbert. Curious about what happened as far as the Colbert and Groce relationship went.  This season, we really could of used him. Seemed like his commitment to practice was what held him back and led to his departure if I understood correctly. Some kids you don't wanna have to give up on, but other times (ex. Darius Paul) your left with no choice.

Yeah, Groce brought up practice quite a bit when talking about Colbert. There were consistency problems with his effort, but he started to figure it out a little bit last season. Looking back on it, I was a little surprised that it was Colbert and not Morgan at the time. But obviously the staff made the right move there. The Illini needed a spot to come open so they could pursue the 2016 class as they wished, and that’s what happened.

What are the early practice reports in regards to Kipper Nichols?

I’ve heard some good things. Groce said recently that he loves Nichols’ effort and the way he is picking things up quickly in practice. He’s tough, athletic and definitely a competitor. That’s a good guy to put on the scout team. Right now, Nichols’ jumper still needs to be more consistent. But he has good form on it. He is naturally a good defender and slasher with his athleticism.

Loren Tate commented on SMSL that Williams and Tilmon are on the verge of committing.  Is this a scenario where both have indicated they will be announcing soon for Illinois, and it's just not spreading like the old days because 1.  We've seen guys change their mind in the past, 2.  We're more grizzled  3. Everyone is so down on the season.

I have a lot of respect for Tate. But I just don’t agree with him when it comes to Tilmon. I’ve been telling you guys about Da’Monte since we joined this site. There have been rumors surrounding Tilmon recently. But I checked in with people I trust and was told there wasn’t much substance. Tilmon talked glowingly about North Carolina recently. He just picked up an offer from Michigan State. Illinois has done a great job, and I think they’re a real player. I’ve told people that all along. But from where I’m sitting right now, Tilmon doesn’t get done without Goodwin on board as well. Just my opinion of the situation.

I know that his mom doesn’t want this thing to drag out forever. But in terms of saying a commitment to Illinois is imminent, I think that's a bit erratic.

While I'm now convinced Groce isn't going anywhere, I'm now convinced Bryce Drew would be the perfect coach for Illinois.  He's a Bo Ryan level coach, with NBA pedigree and Chicago connections to recruit.  Do you believe this job would be on his radar, and if we don't move this year that someone else will and we'll miss our chance.

The word is that Drew would in fact be quite intrigued by the opportunity to coach at Illinois. Will they miss out on their chance with him if they don’t do it this offseason? That really depends on what other jobs come open.


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