Werner Mailbag: March 23

Illini Inquirer publisher Jeremy Werner asks premium members' questions about Lovie Smith's staff, recruiting and the future of Illinois basketball

What does your gut tell you regarding Tate, Nunn, & Black?  Is it realistic that they all get convicted and dismissed from the team?

I'm usually willing to play the "what's your gut tell you?" game but it doesn't feel right with legal issues. All are charged with serious, violent crimes. If Tate and Nunn are found guilty of domestic violence, they should be dismissed from the team. There should be zero tolerance for striking a woman. I do find it doubtful that Black will be convicted of a felony, but we have to let the legal process play out.

Do you think John Groce can be a successful coach at Illinois over the long term? Will he be?

Great question and the one Josh Whitman must answer. He answered it before the allegations against Tate and Nunn. I tend to agree with his initial vote of confidence. While I've never had more doubts about John Groce, I still think he can be successful at Illinois and lead the Illini back to the top half of the Big Ten and maybe beyond. No matter what you think of Groce, I think you must admit that he's had more bad luck than almost any coach of recent memory. The injuries played a huge role in the lost season of 2015-16. Many can blame Groce for the arrests, but at the core of these allegations would be bad decision-making by these individuals. We all know Groce's failures -- the transfers didn't work, failing to land a point guard, getting in the hunt for but failing to land true difference-making recruits -- and he ultimately is responsible for them. But unlike Tim Beckman -- who I'd mostly given up on 2.5 seasons into his career (though he was propped up by Cubit and some others) -- I still haven't given up complete hope on Groce. I would've liked to have seen him with a healthy roster this season. I'd like to see him with a healthy roster -- assuming Nunn and Black are back -- this season. I'd like for him to have the opportunity to show us what a fully healthy John Groce roster can do at Illinois. And if it's not enough, Illinois can move on.

Pick a percentile -- Lovies first recruiting class will finish nationally: 1-25. 26-50, 51-75, 76-100?

Smart money says 26-50 or 51-75. I'll side with 26-50. Lovie has brought buzz back to Illinois. I think he'll be able to capitalize on his resume, hope and vision and get some prospects that the Illini haven't been able to land recently. But I think that will only apply to a few prospects. Illinois still needs make its hay in state. I'd like to see them land 5-10 of the state's top-35 prospects to try and gain some momentum for the future.

Has Whitman talked at all about invading the St. Louis football market now that the Rams have left town, and how he might go about it?  Seems like a great opportunity, and we have two ways in considering Whitman's time at WashU and Lovie's time with the Rams.  I know it's early in Whitman's tenure, but other college teams will be eyeing that market so the quicker we get in there the better.

Whitman held an event in St. Louis last week. After spending two years there at Washington University, he knows the city well. He knows it's a great resource with a fervent Illini fandom. He also knows Illinois needs to win to be noticed there.

Other than Tilmon, are there any other bigs that the staff is recruiting hard? Should Black be gone, Finke will be the only Big in 3 classes. If Tilmon commits, you are really only going to get one "productive" year (either frosh or soph) before he likely leaves.

The Illini are recruiting Larkin forward Christian Negron, a slightly undersized four who would bring athleticism, toughness and rebounding. Iowa is very involved there too. Minneapolis forward Theo John is a really intriguing center prospect and Illinois has recruited him hard. Indiana prospects Derek Culver and Malik Williams are long and athletic but will be really tough to get. Even if the Illini only get one or two years of Timon, he could make a huge impact in that year or two -- similar to what Thomas Bryant has done for Indiana.

Whose choice was it to play Thorne? Did he push the issue and if so, why?

I've asked Groce a couple times what the process was to play Thorne. The doctors and trainers cleared him. Thorne also said he was good to play. Then the coaches decided to play him. All are involved. "At that point, he was cleared," Groce said in February. "Obviously, we're not playing him if he's not. He's cleared by the doctors and our trainer."

Do you see Leron Black to know how he is doing? Do you think he will be back? I admit I am rooting for this kid. I think he's a good person who made a really horrible decision. I keep hearing rumors of guys transferring out of the basketball program. What are you hearing?

I tend to think Leron Black will be back. I do not expect him to be found guilty of a felony charge of aggravated assault. At worst, I think he will plead down to a misdemeanor charge. In that case, I think he will serve a multi-game suspension. We need more facts on the case -- does it matter if Black felt he was acting in self-defense? -- and this was Black's first off-the-court incident to our knowledge. I tend to think he deserves a second chance, though he must pay the price for appearing to make a mistake.

I have not heard anything on transfers. There will always be rumors this time of year. I will say that all underclassmen on the team have a path to playing time if they improve. Though there will be a lot of congestion on the wings in 2017.

Does John Groce have to get this team into the tournament next season to keep his job, regardless of what happens with the 2017 class?

The simple answer would be yes. I'm 99.2 percent sure of that. But what if he lands Jordan Goodwin, Jeremiah Tilmon and another top-100 prospect to make up a to-5 national recruiting class and just misses the tournament after suffering more key injuries? At some point, Groce simply has to produce on the court.

I know Groce has a vote of confidence from Whitman, but just out of curiosity can you think of a Lovie Smith type hire for basketball?  Someone who would be a homerun hire, and too good to pass up.  I've heard Bryce Drew's name a lot, but don't consider him a homerun hire.  I've also heard Tom Thibodeau's name, but would like to hear your thoughts.  Thanks.

Every prepared AD has a list. What I think we've learned from Whitman is that he doesn't make a move unless he's already made the next, corresponding move -- which I love compared to his predecessor. Tom Thibodeau is an NBA coach and a darn good one. He'll have plenty of offers this spring and summer. I think Illinois and Whitman can draw an established name. I think Drew would be a great fit, but some coaches are always ready to move on. Look at Mick Cronin, who may leave Cincinnati after 10 years to take a small paycut at UNLV. Lon Kruger is never afraid to move on before a school or fan base gets tired of him. Buzz Williams also is a name that continues to be brought up for other jobs.

Is it a matter of WHEN not IF Tilmon committing to ILL?

No. Now, I do think Illinois leads for Tilmon and has a chance of landing him this spring. As Derek Piper reported earlier this week, Tilmon likely will not make a commitment this month and will play out the DICK's Sporting Goods Tournament. His camp (his mother) appears to want to slow things down a bit, which could complicate things for Illinois. You didn't think winning a five-star recruitment would be so easy, did you? Once other programs heard Illinois was closing in on sealing the deal (there's a reason there was this kind of buzz), the big boys are going to come harder and more fiercely than before. You better bet they're negatively recruiting against Illinois too. Illinois has done an unbelievable job of recruiting Tilmon so far. If TIlmon commits any time soon, Illinois would be the odds-on favorite. But the longer this goes, the worse those odds become for the Illini.

How much playing time do you expect Tejon Lucas to have next season? What improvements do Nunn and Hill have to make to have a chance in the 2017 NBA Draft? Your Chicago Cubs opening day lineup this season?

I'm in the camp of giving Lucas the keys to the car next season. I'm a huge Tracy Abrams fan. Illinois would've made the tournament in 2014-15 if he were healthy. They would've had a much better chance of dancing this year if he were healthy. But Lucas is the team's future, and he probably has a higher ceiling in 2016-17, so I'd like him to get a lot of early playing time so that he's playing his best basketball in February and March. Now, when I say "hand him the keys" I simply mean that Lucas should get 18-23 minutes per game from the start. That'd be beneficial for his development and also beneficial for Abrams, who is coming off two serious injuries (torn ACL and torn Achilles). What can we count on from Abrams? He'll bring toughness, leadership, defense. But what is he athletically? I'd love for him to be the spark off the bench. Now, maybe Lucas isn't ready to be a starter and Abrams needs to play more. But if I'm Groce, I'm not relying on Abrams to play 25-30 minutes next season.

Hill doesn't have great athleticism, so he needs to become a much better three-point shooter (he's 34.8 percent 3FG during his career) to stick in the league, in my opinion. Nunn must work on his handle. If you're 6-foot-3, you have to be able t beat people off the dribble. Nunn's too easy to scout (make him go right) right now, even if he has a good outside shot and enough athleticism.

Whatever the Cubs opening day lineup is, it will be great. This depresses Piper, a Cardinals fan. I (a White Sox fan) am indifferent. But the North Siders will be fun to watch. Will they top last year's 97-win total? I don't think so. But I  think they'll be close.

What is your expectation of Kipper Nichols? I know little about him and some are claiming he's a beast on the boards. What kind of player do you feel he will be during his career?

I expect Kipper Nichols to add strength, athleticism, defense and rebounding to the Illini front court. Is Kipper going to be a starter? I'm not sure. He needs to develop his offensive skill set. I don't think he'll ever be a great scorer, but he's a hard worker who should continue to improve. But he fills a need for the Illini as a high-energy, physical, bouncy forward -- I think he'll play a lot as an undersized four -- that this roster currently lacks. I expect him to play a small role once he's eligible next winter and then as a sophomore to compete with D.J. Williams, Aaron Jordan and the 2017 wings for playing time. As an overgeneralization, he kind of reminds me of the prototypical Marquette/Ohio State forward we've seen recently: not all that refined skill-wise, but high-energy, tough, bouncy potential lock-down defender.

What current players benefit the most from the hiring of the new staff? What are some territories/recruiting hotbeds that McGee has good connections to? If you were Lovie, what 3 in-state prospects would you hone in on?

I really look forward to what McGee can do with Wes Lunt, who has a lot of physical similarities to a pro player McGee coached at Arkansas (Ryan Mallett). I also am really intrigued by what Lovie and Hardy Nickerson can do with the back seven talent. Lovie developed some great back-seven players during his time in the NFL.

McGee recruited Oklahoma, Texas, Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, Arkansas, Tennessee, among others. So expect him to work the South, along with Illinois.

A few gettable in-state prospects who I'd prioritize: Isaiah RobertsonRicky SmallingIzayah Green-MayIvory Kelly-Martin and Micah Awodiran.

Recruiting, Recruiting, Recruiting....do you have any sort of trending meter on specific targets the new football staff has started to prioritize at this point? Are there any players that are close to making a commitment, and will Lovie honor the Ryan O'Malley commit?

Illinois has checked in with a couple dozen top prospects -- no-doubters -- and is in the process of evaluating film of the next tier of prospects, including a lot of in-state three-star prospects. To be honest, the Illini are behind in recruiting and are now trying to catch up. It's a quiet period so they haven't been able to visit schools and are limited in their contact with prospects, so they haven't been able to fully capitalize on the buzz. That said, the Illini now have more open doors than they've had in about half a decade. A couple prospects who appeared close to pulling the trigger for Cubit's staff were Isaac HawnIsaiah Robertson and Jamir Whitelow.

I'm curious how many people make up the S&C staff and are they spread amongst all sports? Who is the tall bearded man in the suit that was always on the basketball bench? Lastly did you think the change was needed there?

For football, the strength coach has a few assistants. Aaron Hillman had about three assistants on his staff. Basketball has one strength coach. The rest of the athletics department has a head strength coach -- Jim Zielinski, who is the track and field strength coach -- with assistant strength coaches for each specific sport.

The tall bearded man is Adam Fletcher, the strength coach who joined Groce's staff in August. He's scary, in a good way. He dunks in pregames. He is fiery. Illinois wishes he could play for them. He was a pretty tough, tenacious center at Miami Ohio. This is a big offseason ahead for Fletch. He needs to add muscle to Maverick Morgan, Michael Finke, D.J. Williams, Aaron Jordan and Jalen Coleman-Lands. Illinois wasn't strong enough last season. They also weren't explosive enough. In my talks with Fletcher, he plans on changing that.

Was a change needed? I'm assuming this is for football? Yes, I do. Illinois football was not strong enough or explosive enough -- some of that has to do with recruiting -- and it also was way too injury-prone. Part of strength and conditioning coach's job is to prevent injuries. Illinois has had way too many non-contact injuries.

What happened to Khalif Young that the BKB staff had visited a few times?

Illinois didn't offer Kalif Young. He was a bit raw. But now Duke, Indiana and Syracuse are watching him.

Do you believe Hill and Nunn will go through the NBA pre-draft process to get feedback on their overall game and NBA readiness?

Given his legal issues, I doubt Nunn will, but it wouldn't be a bad idea for Hill to participate. The new rule allows players to withdraw their name 10 days after the NBA Draft Combine. There isn't much of a downside to participating in workouts, getting feedback and coming back to school. The rule change really benefits the players, even if it is an inconvenience for coaches trying to plan their 2016-17 rosters.

Will they fill the remaining two 2016 scholarships?

This seems to apply to football, which signed 23 on Signing Day and had two scholarships remaining. The Illini filled one with Gimel President, leaving one left. I'd imagine this staff will look at its options on the fifth-year, JUCO and prep prospect market. Because they don't lose anything by adding another player. They will have 25 scholarship slots for 2017 regardless if they fill that remaining scholarship or not.

Now that we know the full staff, know their recruiting ties, and gotten to know a few of their personalities, what level of recruiting do you think we should reasonably expect moving forward? Outside of OSU and Michigan, there really isn't that big of a gap to overcome to join the likes of Michigan State, Penn State, and Nebraska. Is it reasonable to expect that we elevate recruiting to the level of say MSU or can we actually compete with the likes of OSU and Michigan?

Illinois is going to try to recruit nationally to start. Now, that doesn't mean they will ignore the state. They will go hard after the state's top prospects, but the Illini have some national buzz right now. Kids and high school coaches will open their doors to a long-time NFL coach who is highly respected. I did Cubit's staff's focus and strategy in 2017. They had developed great early relationships and wanted to lock up a lot of the state's Nos. 11-35 prospects -- the kind of Big Ten-caliber prospects who Illinois has struggled to land in recent seasons. I thought that was a smart strategy for where that staff stood. But now, I think it's smart for Lovie to try to capitalize on positive vibes, hope and vision. But he can't go all-in on national prospects at the expense of good in-state prospects.

I think it's reasonable to expect recruiting to improve. Heck, that needs to happen for Illinois to compete in the Big Ten. But Michigan State and Penn State have recruited at a top-15 level for several years. Nebraska is usually in the top-30. Can Illinois get to that level? Zook had Illinois in the top-30 to -40 there from 2007-2009. It's a possibility that Lovie's staff could lift them to that level again. But it's a pretty high standard to expect Illinois to recruit at a top-15 level like some of those programs you listed.

do all coaches recruit (or are allowed to recruit?) do they each recruit for the position that they coach or a geographic region?

Beckman's staff recruited mostly by position. Cubit's staff recruited mostly by geographic region first and then the position coaches recruited after they identified prospects and devveloped relationships. I prefer the latter because it allows the program's to develop better relationships and cast a wider net.

Can you three guys (Jeremy, Ryan, Derek) make some BKB predictions? (i.e. transfers, Thorne, 2016 recruits, staff changes)

You will not hold me to these, right? OK, good. Thank you for not looking too much into these since they are just guesses. I knew you'd be so reasonable about it.

As of today, my "Crystal Ball" -- it's always so accurate!!! It's unbelievable, right?!!! -- would say that Illinois lands Jordan Goodwin and Jeremiah Tilmon (ask me again in a month, though), that Thorne does not receive a medical hardship waiver, that Illinois brings in a fifth-year transfer big and that Groce does not make any staff changes.

If you were Carnac the Magnificent, (I know I am dating myself), what predictions for this upcoming off-season do you foresee?

"Maybe we should give this guy one more chance." -- Illini fans after Groce lands a big commitment this spring.


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