Piper mailbag: March 15

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

With Da'Monte Williams’ commitment will we back off other recruits like Nojel Eastern or Paul Scruggs? Do you see Williams as a 1 or 2 more in college?

I don’t think they will back off Eastern, but he won’t be in the same realm as Jeremiah Tilmon and Jordan Goodwin on the priority list. As for Scruggs, I doubt Illinois spends a ton of time on him. They’re behind some big-time players like Indiana and Kentucky, and the need for another combo guard isn’t extremely high.

Williams is somewhere in the middle, but probably closer to a college two right now – in my opinion. I like his vision, his decision-making and his passing. He is a guy who you want to have the ball in his hands. But he has to tighten up his handles significantly to be a legit lead guard in the Big Ten.

Since you've been covering Illinois recruiting, who was the player that you were most certain would be an Illini that ended up somewhere else?

I’d have to say it’s the guy who is going to win Mr. Basketball in Illinois this year: Morgan Park point guard Charlie Moore. It just seemed like the perfect match. I talked to Charlie quite a bit, and I knew the relationship he had with Paris Parham and John Groce. I was confident from the early stages that he would end up committing to Illinois, and I still thought he would after his recruitment got put on hold. But the Illini just couldn’t afford to wait any longer.

Can you give updates on the Illini commits? Stats? Season averages? Improvements they've made during the season?

Te'Jon Lucas was averaging 20.5 points, 7.8 assists, 5.3 rebounds and 2.8 steals per game until he broke his ankle at the beginning of last month. Lucas was named Co-Player of the Year in the Milwaukee City Conference. He had season-ending surgery on Feb. 17 and he has been recovering since then. Lucas was having a huge season overall, and he really took another step forward with his outside jumper.

DaMonte Williams has averaged 16.8 points per game in state tournament play thus far. Peoria Manual defeated Bloomington in the sectional championship last Friday. They will take on Boylan Catholic in the super sectionals on Tuesday with a chance to advance to the Final Four. Williams has been up-and-down with his overall production this season, but he has stepped it up in big moments. He had 20 points, including five dunks, in the win over Bloomington. Williams also had 37 points in a dominating performance against Joliet West at the Pontiac Holiday Tournament in December.

Javon Pickett scored the ball at a high level this past season—averaging nearly 24 points per game. But Belleville East lost in the regional finals against Edwardsville. Pickett had 16 points in the game, but he fouled out with more than three minutes to play. Nevertheless, Pickett took big strides with his game this season. He continues to develop all aspects of his game, and he is a talented scorer.

Do you think Da'Monte Williams was recruited to play primarily the 1 or 2?

The Illini staff sold him on being able to do both, and they’re going to use him that way. Where he plays the most will be determined by the surrounding roster and how the depth chart plays out. Does Te’Jon Lucas look the part of a starting Big Ten point guard? It also depends on how well Williams develops his handles.

What's your perfect 2017 class? Based on current Illini targets...

Da’Monte Williams

Jordan Goodwin

Javon Pickett

Derek Culver

Jeremiah Tilmon

Do you expect the Illini to get to the Tourney with Groce?

I think next year’s team has an NCAA tournament roster – assuming that they stay healthy. The obvious question marks are at point guard and center. But the Illini will upgrade significantly in the backcourt with Te’Jon Lucas and a serviceable Tracy Abrams. As for down low, Morgan has certainly gotten better. He and Finke will benefit greatly from an offseason with Adam Fletcher. Illinois could also use a fifth-year transfer capable of playing the five. Leron Black’s status is key as well.

Ultimately, I think Illinois has a pretty good shot at getting back to the dance next season. They can really make that a habit if they keep things rolling in 2017.

Can you name the most likely candidates to transfer after the year? Is there any chance that Nunn or Hill leave?

Don’t see any shot that Nunn or Hill leave. In general, I don’t think a transfer is in the cards right now. But if there were to be one, I think Aaron Jordan is the name you would consider.

Over or under 50% that we sign Tilmon? Goodwin?

Tilmon: Over.

Goodwin: Even, but over if Tilmon jumps on board.

Over/under 50%, one of Hill, Nunn or JCL will not be on the team next year.

Almost zero. Would be shocking if one of them was not back.

Give us some hope there are brighter days ahead

“The night is darkest just before the dawn. And I promise you, the dawn is coming.” – The Dark Knight

The Illini have a good amount of talent coming back next season. They will get much-needed upgrades at point guard with Tracy Abrams and Te’Jon Lucas. They’re already off to a good start in the 2017 class, and it could get a whole lot better very soon.

Fast forward to the start of the 2017 / 2018 season and Illini have hit the homerun with Tilmon and Goodwin to go along with Williams and Pickett already on board.  Assuming no other attrition other than graduation, who is your starting 5 and your first 3 off the bench for that team?

Starters: Te’Jon Lucas (SO), Jalen Coleman-Lands (JR), Jordan Goodwin (FR), Leron Black (R-JR) and Jeremiah Tilmon (FR)

First three off the bench: Da’Monte Williams (FR), Michael Finke (R-JR) and D.J. Williams (JR).

With all the obsession on landing a huge 2017 class, very little attention on this board (IMO) has been paid to a 5 star prospect who is in our own backyard and has a brother on our roster.  With that said, what can you give us on Tim Finke?  I have to imagine there will never be another 5 star caliber player we are more likely to land.  Is it just a matter of time, or will he seriously pursue his own path?

Tim is just taking in the process at this point, and he is in no rush to make a decision. His two big offers right now are from Illinois and Ohio State. But he’s being looked at by a number of schools, including Indiana, Iowa, Purdue, Virginia and others. That list is only going to grow this summer when he plays on the 17U circuit with the St. Louis Eagles.

The Illini have the inside track right now for obvious reasons. But I don’t think they are lock by any means. We’ll have to see how things play out through this summer and into his junior season.

If Tim Finke were to decide to commit to Illinois today, how would the staff handle that scholarship reservation since there are no spots due to open up in 2018? Would we essentially just roll one over for the next 2 years, taking 5th year guys in 2016 and 2017?  Will the potential 2018 scholarship limitations factor into Finke's recruitment to the point where he makes his decision sooner rather than later?

If Illinois takes five players in 2017 and everyone else stays on the roster (including Leron Black), they will still have one open scholarship for 2018. That only changes if the Illini take a transfer that isn’t a fifth-year guy. Still, Black’s situation is still very much up in the air. It’s also not out the question that someone gets pushed out of rotation and transfers if Illinois lands the class they desire in the 2017 class.

Finke is going to take his time with his decision, and the Illini will certainly find a way to have a spot waiting for him if he wants to jump on board. You might wonder about immediate playing time if Illinois stockpiles in 2017. But a player of his caliber will find his way onto the floor, and other big-time schools will have competition awaiting as well.

Don't know much about Kipper. Tell me all you know about him.

Kipper is an athletic forward with a physical build at 6-foot-6, 220 pounds. His best attributes are his toughness, pure athleticism and ability to defend. But he can score it as well. Nichols averaged 18.6 points and 4.7 rebounds as a senior at St. Edwards High School in Ohio. He is most effective off the bounce or as a slasher. He has good form on his jumper, but he can be a streaky shooter. He handles it well for his size as well.

Nichols needs to work on being more consistent with his outside shot. But he will be able to make an impact right away with his defense, rebounding and overall athleticism. 

In your opinion do you think a highly demonstrative sideline coach (like ours) helps or hinders their players? Do you think it is an effective leadership style? Do you think it distracts the players or motivates them? For the record I find it to be an unwanted sideshow during the game and would rather a coach show calm leadership at all times. Look no further than the most successful coaches in the game for examples, understanding they are occasionally demonstrative in specific instances which probably leads to greater effect.

I think it really depends on the players. Some guys will feed off that energy and some won’t. I think it can wear on some guys. Other times, I think it can light a fire where it needs to be lit.

Most of the best coaches have a calm demeanor because they have the talent to make it so. But even with seven Final Four appearances and five Big Ten titles, Tom Izzo doesn't avoid being demonstrative when he feels his team needs it.

What have you heard in recruiting circles about the perception of our program? Are Groce/etc. badmouthed?

I know many camps were concerned about Groce’s job status – especially before Whitman was hired. Other coaching staffs have tried to use that against him. But in general, Groce still has a good reputation with most coaches, recruits and their parents. His energy and personality are infectious. They know he and his staff work as hard as any in the country on the recruiting trail. And I think most everybody is sympathetic of the bad breaks they sustained this past season.

People have taken notice of the opportunity in the 2017 class, and the momentum that they have created. But I’m sure Illinois’ opponents in key recruitments will continue to point out Groce’s and the program’s past failures and lack of national relevance.

What do you think Groce will REALISTICALLY do over the off-season to show some sort of coaching acumen?

Honestly, I don’t see him changing much from a philosophy standpoint. He believes in the program and structure he has establish. I’m sure in his mind, it’s all about developing the roster and catching breaks on the health front. Groce and his staff believe they have the talent to do damage next season, and then reload in the 2017 class by capitalizing on the position they have established.

Of the assistants, who is the most dead weight and why? (my vote is Ford, but I just can't stand the guy barking orders right alongside Groce on the sideline). Phrased differently, who would Groce let go if forced (fictional scenario, I know)?

I understand the question. I don’t think the assistants are going anywhere. So it’s hard to give you an answer.

If you're Josh Whitman and Bryce Drew calls you up and says I'll take the U of I job for $2 mil/year, would you pull the trigger?

Not at this time. You already pledged your support for Groce. Give him another year to be evaluated, while also not messing with the recruiting mojo in a hugely important class.

What are the roles of Groce's assistants during games and during practices? I am curious to know who is involved in calling the offensive sets, especially during droughts. Do they each take a position to work on during practice or are they split up offense-defense?

Jamall Walker coaches the guards, Dustin Ford has the bigs and Paris Parham has the wings. So they have a narrowed focus when it comes to practice and individual workouts. The three of them rotate on who has the scout of the opponent. Groce is ultimately the one who barks out the signals to run certain sets, although the assistants offer input during game-planning and in-game as well. Ford is Groce’s right-hand man and he operates the substitution pattern – in addition to Groce.

Any truth to rumor Abrams looking to transfer?

Not that I have seen or heard.

If we get a 5th year guy for next year, is there a chance that we look to take 6 guys from the 2017 class?

I don’t think so. You want to establish some class balance, and have the ability to offer spots to 2018 targets such as Tim Finke and Carte'Are Gordon.

What can Josh Whitman really do to help John Groce recruit? Can he go out with Groce on the road to meet with recruits to let them know he backs him and show his great Illinois energy? If he can't do it on the road can he do it on campus? Can he bring Dee with him to the on campus visit? Assuming it is ok for Whitman and Dee to do on campus visits with recruits has any been done and or any planned?

Giving the vote of confidence was a big help. Whitman can’t go out and talk with recruits, but he can be a part of campus visits. Dee can “run into” recruits on campus, and he has met and talked with recruits since being in Champaign. He did so with Te’Jon Lucas and some others.

I know Whitman will be involved in key visits. I’m sure his personality and his energy will be a nice asset when it comes to selling the program and the University of Illinois as a whole.

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