The offseason has officially begun for the Illini basketball program after missing the NCAA tournament for the third straight year - and missing postseason play all together for the first time during the John Groce era.
There is much work to be done to ensure that Illinois is in a favorable position when Selection Sunday rolls around next season. Opportunity is to be had in the 2017 class and on the transfer market, and important decisions will be made with the current roster as well.
It's no secret that this is the most crucial offseason during Groce's tenure, and it is one that will substantially determine the direction of the program and the job security of the current staff.
Here are the top five items on the offseason checklist.
Seize opportunity in the 2017 class
Momentum has been building in the all-important 2017 class for the Illini, who already have commitments from Da'Monte Williams and Javon Pickett. It was of supreme importance to get off to a strong start and allow that momentum to translate across the board. Mission accomplished.
The key now is to take the next step, and it is a big one at that. Illinois is in prime position with five-star big man Jeremiah Tilmon, who could potentially be the first five-star commit the program has had since Dee Brown. Tilmon is buying what Groce and his staff are selling right now - so much that some close sources around his recruitment feel that he could be on the verge of pulling the trigger before the next turn of the calendar. Simply put: It's closing time.
Closing the deal with top-level recruits is a big reason why Groce was brought to Champaign. His energy, charisma and recruiting track record made him seem destined for success. Groce has added some talented pieces in past classes, but he has ultimately missed on his home-run swings. Finding answers to positions of need has been a concern as well. But with the support of new athletic director Josh Whitman, Groce has a chance to realize that level of envisioned success - even if it's later than most anticipated.
The impact of Tilmon's potential pledge speaks for itself. He is an immediate-impact, pro-style big man who warrants the label of a program-changer. That's what happens when you land one of the top 10 players in the class. But that's not all. It's rational to think that Tilmon would make Illinois' sell irresistible to fellow St. Louis Eagles teammate Jordan Goodwin. The versatile wing may be the best overall player in the state of Illinois right now.
Goodwin has been flat out unstoppable in his junior season. He makes plays all over the floor. He's gritty. He's tough. He's a winner. He is exactly the kind of player that Illinois needs. Plenty of other programs have taken notice, including some strong competitors in the Big Ten. But the Illini nearly locked him up this past fall, and they could be back in the same position if Tilmon makes the move.
That alone would be a top-10 class in the country, and one that transforms the ceiling and timeline to achieve excellence. The Illini would have another spot to give as well. What seemed like a dream class starting out is as close to a reality as it's ever been. It's up to Groce to follow through and knock it over the fence.
Decide the future of Black & Tate
The goal and expectation of any basketball coach is to have his players on the court - not in court. But the arrests of Leron Black and Jaylon Tate have added another layer to the offseason for Groce. Tate was arrested on Saturday morning and charged with domestic battery after he allegedly punched his girlfriend in the face. Black was arrested on Feb. 20 and charged with aggravated assault after allegedly threatening a club bouncer with a knife.
Both players have been indefinitely suspended from all team activities. Black will appear back in court on April 19 for his pre-trial hearing. Tate plead not guilty at his arraignment hearing on Monday, and his pre-trial date is set for April 20. Groce and Whitman released a joint statement on Tate's arrest on Saturday.
"We are aware of the allegations against men's basketball student-athlete Jaylon Tate. Tate has been indefinitely suspended from all team activities pending legal proceedings and an investigation into the allegations. It is important that we take time to fully understand the events of last evening before passing judgment. We condemn domestic violence in all its forms and will move swiftly and decisively if these allegations are substantiated."
Tate's arrest marked the third one for the Illini basketball program in the last year. Darius Paul was arrested in France this past summer, and he was dismissed from the team. That came after Paul was given a second chance following an arrest in April 2014. He was suspended for a year, played a season in junior college (Lamar State) and returned to Illinois.
The question now becomes whether Tate and Black will play again in an Illinois uniform. That determination - first and foremost - will come from the findings through the legal investigation. Illinois made a good move by waiting to make a judgement until all the facts are presented. In fact, Tate's attorney was very confident in his statements that his client will be cleared of all charges.
"We have no doubt this case will result in the complete clearing of Jaylon Tate's name," Tom Bruno said on Monday.
Tate's case is pretty clear cut. He either hit a woman or he didn't. As for Black, his charge could be plead down at the very least. If he pleads guilty to a lessor charge, it will be up to Whitman and Groce to make that judgement call.
Pursue the transfer market
The transfer market has become an important aspect of recruiting, as teams are able to fill gaps with players who already have collegiate experience. There are hundreds of transfers every year, and the list seems to grow each time. Fifth-year transfers are particularly intriguing with their ability to play right away - making those additions almost like free agency.
Illinois was aggressive in their pursuit last spring, and they came away with the best fifth-year center on the market in Charlotte big man Mike Thorne Jr. He provided an instant impact in the post with his back-to-the-basket scoring and effectiveness on the glass. Unfortunately, Thorne played in just eight games in an Illini uniform due to a torn meniscus. The Illini will seek a sixth year of eligibility for Thorne, but the odds are greatly stacked against them given that he played in the second half of the season.
That puts the Illini back in a similar position. Over the next few weeks, names will come up as players announce their intentions to play their final year of eligibility elsewhere. The market itself is rather unpredictable until that time - without knowing the graduation status of certain redshirt juniors. To be a fifth-year transfer, players must be in position to complete their degree at their current school and be eligible to enroll in a graduate program. Coaches cannot have direct contact with those players until they are given their official release.
With the season just coming to an end for most programs, the fifth-year landscape still remains murky at this time. But it will soon pick up in the next week or two. There will surely be some options on the table, and the Illini have a scholarship to give for next season - and possibly more depending on the status of Black and Tate.
Illinois feels better about their down low situation a year later, as Maverick Morgan has emerged as a capable Big Ten center and Michael Finke will be improved after an offseason of development. The Illini may not need another big man of Thorne's caliber, but that doesn't mean they won't pursue one if it is out there. Either way, they need to add more depth to a frontcourt that struggled to rebound (13th in the Big Ten) and block shots (last in the Big Ten). Groce could even look for a player similar to former transfer Sam McLaurin, who provided a boost with his physicality, rebounding and defense.
A source told IlliniInquirer.com on Monday that the Illini will be watching closely as the transfer market emerges, but they don't have any specific targets to date.
Hit the weight room
Physical development is a huge key for the current Illini roster, and Groce is excited to utilize head strength coach Adam Fletcher in his first full offseason. The Orange and Blue have high expectations for what Fletcher can do through strength training, conditioning and nutrition.
"He's very intelligent when it comes to sleep, nutrition, flexibility - all those things that go into building a complete player," Groce said of Fletcher back in January. "He's a competitor. The guys know he is a killer in terms of his mindset and attitude towards things."
Morgan and Finke will be two of Fletcher's main projects. Finke did a nice job to transform his body during his redshirt year, and the Illini are looking for him to make even bigger strides this offseason. The 6-foot-10 big man needs to add more strength and physical stamina to avoid being pushed around by other Big Ten bigs. Finke hit a wall in the middle of conference play after a big month of December in the nonconference slate. He averaged 5.1 points and 4.2 rebounds in the Big Ten regular season, while shooting 31.3 percent from the field.
The Illini will look to physically maximize Morgan as well. The junior center surprised and impressed many with his offensive production and efficiency this past season. Morgan averaged 9.5 points and 4.1 rebounds in the Big Ten regular season. That was highlighted by an outing of 21 points and 10 rebounds at Maryland against future first-round pick Diamond Stone. But Morgan still needs to add more strength and mobility in order to consistently compete on the glass and defend in the paint.
There will also be a big focus on the group of true freshmen: Jalen Coleman-Lands, D.J. Williams and Aaron Jordan. The physical jump between Year One and Year Two is a critical one. Adding strength, quickness and explosion are important for offensive development, but maybe even more so at the defensive end. There should be a considerable difference in their physical stature by the time they hit the court for their sophomore seasons.
Develop skills of young nucleus
Another critical part of development is in the skill department. Each of Illinois' young players have things that they do well. But they each have holes in their game that need to be addressed.
Coleman-Lands is the brightest young star on the roster, and he didn't waste any time showing Illini fans how big of a get he was in the 2015 class. Coleman-Lands hit 86 threes on the season, which broke Cory Bradford's mark for most three-pointers by an Illinois freshman. There's no questioning that he is already an elite shooter, as he shot at a 42.2 percent clip on 206 attempts.
Coleman-Lands ultimately has the potential to be an elite player in the conference by the time his collegiate career is finished, but that is predicated on his development in other areas. A big focus is on his dribble-drive game. Coleman-Lands has to be able to make plays off the bounce - whether it is driving to the hoop, pulling up for a jumper or creating for others. He has that potential, which he showed at the high school and AAU levels. He showed some flashes as his freshman year went on as well. But ultimately, more than 73 percent of his field goal attempts were from three, and he had 36 turnovers with only 30 assists.
Williams is an intriguing player going forward with his length, athleticism and newfound motor. He progressed quite a bit through the Big Ten season, as he showed an ability to rebound, defend and finish around the rim. Williams now needs to focus on adding more tools to the toolbox when it comes to his offensive arsenal. Improving his jumper is at the top of the to-do list. He will probably never be a knock-down shooter, but he can hit shots and needs to be more consistent in that area. Furthermore, he needs to work on making different moves in spots where he typically gets the ball. If he can get a step on his defender, he has the athleticism to finish at the hoop.
Jordan's freshman season was mostly a learning experience. He has a smooth stroke, and he shot 34.4 percent from long range on the year. That number will go up next season and beyond. The focus for him is doing more off the dribble and being able to create his own shot. Jordan made some aggressive drives but sometimes struggled to finish. It is important that he becomes more consistent in catch-and-shoot situations, while also making controlled moves off the bounce. Like Coleman-Lands, he needs to work on improving his defensive principles as well.
Finke could use some development in his post game. Adding some Ethan Happ-like moves would do him good. Outside of that, Finke already has the ability to space the floor with his jumper and find open cutters with his vision. He is more skilled than most big men of his stature. The next step is adding some moves in the post, while bulking up his frame to improve numerous aspects of his game (low-post scoring, rebounding and defense).
And don't forget about Kipper Nichols. The transfer forward is already rather physically developed for his age. He can provide an instant impact with his defense, athleticism and ability to slash to the hoop. Nichols is another guy that needs to get shots up at a high rate this offseason. He has solid form on his jumper, but he needs to be more consistent with it. He shot 43.4 percent from the field and just 15.8 percent from three during his last season on the EYBL circuit.
If the Illini can get these pieces to make the proper progressions, they will be in a good spot heading into next season. Malcolm Hill and Kendrick Nunn should play the best basketball of their careers in their final go-around. Tracy Abrams and Te'Jon Lucas - if healthy - should provide significant upgrades at point guard.
How Groce and his staff fill out this checklist will be very telling of what's in store in the future.