Lovie Smith doesn't talk much about injuries. And that's fine. Many coaches refuse to speak about injuries due to schematic reasons, privacy reasons or whatever reasons they have. We media will continue to ask about injuries. They often are newsworthy, especially when they happen to a player the caliber of Mikey Dudek. Smith doesn't have to answer the questions, but not answering them will lead to speculation. I don't know the extent of Dudek's injury -- though I've tried -- but I do know the injury's worth some worry. While it's easy to focus on what the severity of Dudek's injury could mean to the Illinois football 2016 season (or even Wes Lunt's draft stock), the immediate concern is Dudek. You hope for his sake that it's nothing too serious. Like Illini basketball player Tracy Abrams -- who suffered back-to-back season-ending injuries -- Dudek is a phenomenal representative of Illinois athletics. Even if the injury only holds him out this spring, it's a setback for Dudek. The goal of spring was to overcome the mental hurdles of recovery and regain confidence in his body.
Illinois football recruiting is behind. That's part of the problem in changing staffs in March. The previous staff had invested about six months in recruiting the state of 2017 by then. Lovie Smith's staff -- several assistants were not on a college football staff last season -- is playing catch up 10 months before Signing Day. Big Ten West rivals Northwestern (nine commits, including three four-stars, Iowa (8 commits, including a five-star), Wisconsin (eight commits) and Nebraska (four commits, including three four-stars) are all off to great starts in the Class of 2017, while Purdue (one commit) and Minnesota (zero commits) struggle. Smith's name has opened doors for Illinois, but how easily can he cash in on that cache? That will be one of the most fascinating aspects of the program to watch over the coming months. There definitely is buzz around Illinois football. Recruits, parents and high school coaches are now intrigued by Illini football. Spring and summer are huge for recruiting. Illinois is already hosting recruits for visit. They'll try to get on the road once the April 15 quiet period is done, but spring practice will limit their ability to travel. It's not time to panic or anything. Illinois football recruiting has more ammunition than its had since Ron Zook. But the Illini could really use a push from a name prospect to start the fireworks. Illinois doesn't want to take a commit just to take a commit (they probably could land a few three-star prospects from the state). Smith's staff is aiming for impact prospects.
Way-too-early prognostications for next college basketball season are coming out. The May 25 NBA Draft withdrawal deadline will have a huge affect on the landscape of the Big Ten next season. My conference title favorite will be Wisconsin because, assuming Nigel Hayes returns, everyone is back including All-Big Ten candidates Bronson Koennig and Ethan Happ. Michigan State loses a great senior class but should contend due to its best-ever freshman class, which could include up to three McDonald's All-Americans. Indiana loses Yogi Ferrell but could contend again if Thomas Bryant and Troy Williams hold off on the NBA and join James Blackmon, Robert Johnson and OG Anunoby to form a legit contender. Maryland could again be a contender or may enter a rebuilding year, depending on NBA decisions from Melo Trimble and Diamond Stone. Despite losing A.J. Hammons and Raphael Davis, Purdue should again be a top-six team thanks to Caleb Swanigan, Isaac Haas and Vince Edwards (who is going through the draft process but not hiring an agent). Michigan returns most from its NCAA Tournament team (Caris LeVert was hurt most of the season anyway), but seems to lack the top playmaker to be a conference title contender -- unless Xavier Simpson turns out to be that good as a freshman.
Ohio State and Illinois seem to have the most room for improvement. Despite many soon-to-be sophomores transferring out, Ohio State has as much talent as anyone thanks to JaQuan Lyle, Keita Bates-Diop, Jae'Sean Tate, Marc Loving and Trevor Thompson (going through the draft process). The Buckeyes seem to lack depth but could contend if they mature. Illinois should enter the top half of the conference if their current roster is clear of legal trouble and healthy -- big ifs at this point.
Iowa has the most potential to fall after losing most of its top contributors, except maybe for Peter Jok. Nebraska, Penn State and Northwestern are all improving as programs but seem a year away from tournament contention after losing key contributors (Shavon Shields and Benny Parker for Nebraska, Brandon Taylor and Jordan Dickerson for Penn State and Alex Olah and Tre Demps for Northwestern). Minnesota s more talented with Illinois State transfer Reggie Lynch and top-50 recruit Amir Coffey, but is it enough in what could be a make-or-break season for coach Rich Pitino? Oh, and Rutgers remains terrible.
Josh Whitman had a few good options if he had decided to fire John Groce. The key word there is "had." Rising star Bryce Drew left his alma mater (Valparaiso) for Vanderbilt, an improved program but one historically where it's tough to win. Cuonzo Martin may leave a tough Pac-12 job (California) for a tough ACC job (Georgia Tech). Despite its challenges, Illinois is a better job than either, a job that should've attracted coaches with Midwest ties, like Drew and Martin. Whitman smartly spent a lot resources on his splash football hire. Did he miss an opportunity with men''s basketball?