Most sensible choice to a tough decision. After days of contemplation, Illini athletic director Josh Whitman and John Groce couldn't avoid the inevitable with the dismissal of Kendrick Nunn on Tuesday. Nunn was not convicted on domestic battery charges, but his plea of guilt to simple battery last Wednesday made it clear that he struck a woman back in March. Even though he was set to be one of the top six returning scorers in the Big Ten entering a do-or-die season for Groce's future. Even though his actions didn't represent the person Groce and his program knew for the last three seasons. Even though he had a number of people inside that program who wanted him to get his second chance in Champaign. The Illini could not bring back Nunn after allegations that Whitman said were "intolerable" were admitted to by Nunn himself. As a result, court is finally adjourned within the athletic department two months after Whitman and Groce sat in front of the microphones to address the air raid of off-court issues.
Whitman was challenged to deliver a strong message. When Whitman took over as the athletic director on Feb. 18, he knew he was tasked with evaluating the dysfunction of a hoops program that was about to miss the NCAA tournament three years in a row for the first time since 1980. He knew he'd have to decide if Groce could allow him to follow through on the "we will win" promise. What he didn't know was that he'd wake up the next morning to news of Leron Black's arrest. Or that two more arrests would come during the span of a week, and all three in the span of a month. Struggles on the court during an injury-ridden season were understandable. But the conduct and standards of an Illinois student-athlete needed reaffirming with strong and decisive judgement by their new leader. Nunn's dismissal was a forceful response in a well-handled fashion.
Nunn's exit leaves a hole on the hardwood. Dismissing Nunn was a non-basketball decision, but it certainly has major repercussions on the court for the Illini. Nunn was second on the team last season with 15.5 points per game. He was clearly Illinois' second best three-point threat, while shooting higher than 39 percent from deep last year. The Illini needed him to be a workhorse, and he was by playing more than 35 minutes per game. He was also going to be one of the best guards in the conference in his final collegiate season. That's difficult to replace. Jalen Coleman-Lands is ready to be a big-minutes lock at the two-spot, and Malcolm Hill can play the three with Leron Black coming back to restock the frontcourt. Groce's down-low rotation was extremely limited due to injury last season, and now he has a depth concern at shooting guard. Coleman-Lands can play more than 30 minutes on most nights, but Aaron Jordan is the only other natural two-guard on the roster. Jordan will be relied on to make significant strides this offseason. He clearly has the furthest way to go of Illinois' returning sophomores.
Alternative options could be necessary. Lack of depth at a particular position requires some level of creativity with the rotations. Groce plugged Hill in at the four-spot when Black and Mike Thorne Jr. went down, which forced Michael Finke to play almost exclusively at the five. He also slotted Hill in at the point when Jaylon Tate and Khalid Lewis were an offensive hindrance. Now, Hill could be asked to step in at the two when Coleman-Lands is on the bench. They could also utilize a two point guard look with Tracy Abrams and Te'Jon Lucas. The Illini sold that potential to Charlie Moore before he ultimately picked Cal last week. Abrams can play the two, even though it isn't exactly ideal to have a shooting guard who can't really shoot. Abrams has shot below 27 percent from deep during his career, but he can make plays off the bounce and he is capable of scoring. It is an option if the Illini don't make an add to the roster. Kipper Nichols, who will likely be eligible after the first semester, could play the two as well with his ability to handle it on the wing and slash to the bucket. He's also a very skilled defender.
Looking to fill the open spot. The Illini can also look for solutions, or additions in other areas, with the available scholarship left behind. The first name that comes to mind is Windy City product Charles Matthews, who was once a big part of Illinois' plans in the 2015 class. D.J. Williams played with Matthews on MeanStreets, and the two are very good friends. Matthews announced his intentions to transfer from Kentucky last week to the displeasure of John Calipari. Matthews played just over 10 minutes per game as a freshman last season, and he wants to find a solidified role that will allow him to showcase his talent. Illinois has that to offer, as they need someone to fill Hill's shoes after this season. Matthews is long and athletic at 6-foot-6, and he has loads of natural ability. He has a knack for getting to the rack off the bounce, and he can make an impact with rebounding and defending as well. A sit-out year will be beneficial for Matthews too, as he works to be more consistent with his jumper and individually fine-tune his game.
No reported contact with Matthews yet. St. Rita head coach Gary DeCesare has been helping to run Matthews' transfer recruitment, and he told IlliniInquirer.com on Tuesday afternoon that he hasn't had any contact with the Illini staff yet. But that doesn't mean Illinois hasn't reached out directly to Matthews, or that they're not going to. It's an obvious move to pursue him if you can get him. Yes, he would take a spot in the 2017 class. Yes, he could make it harder for the Illini to sell wings like Jordan Goodwin in that class. But you take a talent like that if you have the opportunity. The Illini will be active if they see this as a winnable chase. Matthews figures to attract a ton of high-level attention from programs with an available spot. It is a benefit for Illinois given that many programs have their rosters solidified this late in the spring. But others can make it happen. One source said that Oregon could "make a lot of sense" with Matthews ultimately filling in for Dillon Brooks in 2017-18.
More on Matthews on the premium board HERE.
Fifth-year market is rather dry. If the Illini can't get Matthews, another logical move is to look at some immediately-eligible options. That being said, there isn't much to pick from on the fifth-year front this late in the game. According to the ESPN transfer list, 70 of the 97 immediately-eligible targets are already off the board. There's no question Illinois wishes they could have acted on Nunn's ultimate fate earlier with UW-Milwaukee transfer guard Akeem Springs. The Waukegan, Ill. native averaged 13.2 points and 5.3 rebounds per game last season, and he shot higher than 35 percent from deep. Illinois likely could have locked him up, but Springs ended up at Minnesota. Valparaiso big man Alec Peters is a potential fifth-year transfer after pulling out of the NBA Draft on Wednesday. But he could also go back to Valpo and be the top player in the Horizon League. And if he's going to transfer, the Washington, Ill. native would likely end up at Vanderbilt with his former head coach Bryce Drew. There are a few other potential options, and you can find a breakdown HERE.
Simeon connection compromised? That is the fear for some Illini fans, who typically feel uneasy about recruiting relationships in Chicago anyways. But Simeon has been good to Illinois over the years, and head coach Robert Smith has let it be known that he likes sending his players to Champaign. That is a valuable relationship to have with the most prestigious high school program in the state, and a head coach who has won six state titles. But Illinois just got rid of a Simeon product, who was the best player not named Jabari Parker on Smith's last title team. Smith publicly defended and supported Nunn and Tate prior to the close of the legal and disciplinary processes. The Illini should remain just fine with the program, though. Whitman and Groce allowed the justice system to take its course. They didn't have much choice with Nunn, and they still have Tate and Williams. Illinois will likely be tight on available rides in the 2018 class, but Simeon will have some talent worth pursuing in Talen Horton-Tucker, Devonire Glass and possibly Kezo Brown.
Illinois still winning the offseason. Considering the circumstances sitting in front of the Illini just a week after their exit at the Big Ten tournament, Illinois has been fairly fortunate when it comes to loading up for next season. Losing Nunn is a major blow. Missing out on Moore hurt given the second opportunity to land him, and the chance to end the Illinois Mr. Basketball-less streak. But the Illini had some uncontrollable hurdles there. The additions are far bigger than the losses too. Thorne's return was an outlook-changing break for the Illini, and that gives them one of the top two centers in the Big Ten -- along with Thomas Bryant at Indiana. The Illini got Black back before that, and the pairing of the two allows that frontcourt to be pretty darn potent. Illinois was crippled by a lack of rebounding last year, but they should now be a top-half rebounding team in the Big Ten -- assuming that Thorne and Black remain healthy. With Finke and Maverick Morgan, Illinois is deep and versatile with potential combinations down low. They have the starting backcourt talent with Coleman-Lands and Hill, despite some depth concerns. And Moore going elsewhere is alleviated by Lucas coming in, which is why the Illini didn't hesitate to take him in the first place. Point guard play will be an X-factor, and there is uncertainty with Lucas and Abrams coming off major injuries. But this is still a dance-worthy roster in what will be a must-dance season.