Fact or Fiction: Illini will land Kentucky transfer Charles Matthews.
Derek Piper, lead basketball reporter
Fiction. The Illini didn't have the available scholarship -- and maybe some other factors -- to win the Charlie Moore race. But after Kendrick Nunn's dismissal, there is an open scholarship to give and Charles Matthews is out there looking for a destination. Matthews was a top-100 talent up in Chicago, and he was a big part of Illinois' plans in the 2015 class early on. The Illini were thought to have a strong chance by landing Matthews' best friend and AAU teammate D.J. Williams. But John Calipari put the hard sell on and Matthews pulled the trigger.
Matthews was once considered the top player in the state in the 2015 class. Most had him as a top-20 prospect in the country when he committed during his junior season. But after that, Matthews fell off a little bit during his last AAU and high school seasons -- largely due to inconsistency and outside shooting struggles. He turned out to be No. 80 in the Scout.com rankings. But there's still a lot to like about Matthews' game.
He is athletic and skilled as a 6-foot-6 wing. He gets to the rack off the dribble, and he knows how to finish. Matthews has a nice mid-range game as well, and he is capable of becoming an even better shooter with more development. Matthews played just more than 10 minutes per game as a freshman at Kentucky last year. The opportunity just wasn't there, and that's a place that continues to bring in elite talent every year. Still, Calipari let it be known that he was upset by Matthews' exit. That's a good indicator of his ability.
So Illinois sits with an open scholarship. They have Williams already repping the orange and blue. There is big-time opportunity for Matthews in Champaign after the sit-out year. Malcolm Hill will be a Big Ten Player of the Year candidate during his senior season, but the Illini need someone to step up in a major way in his spot after he leaves. Matthews is capable of that. He is familiar with the coaching staff and the program. Williams' mom has been talking with Matthews' mom.
But after gauging the situation, Illinois has come to realize that this match probably isn't going to happen -- from what I've been told. Yes, the Illini were thought to be pretty close the first time around. But the field is really tough right now.
There are plenty of attractive programs with an available spot. You can look no further than a pair of Big Ten foes: Michigan and Michigan State. The Spartans were pretty active during Matthews' first recruitment. Now, they bring in one of the top 2016 classes in the country and still have a remaining spot. Five-star small forward Miles Bridges is likely a one-and-done, so there will be opportunity to be had after this season. MSU loves five-star wing Brian Bowen in the 2017 class, but Matthews and Bowen could play together in a four-guard lineup or with a bigger backcourt of those two and Josh Langford at the point.
Michigan also makes quite a bit of sense. Zak Irvin will be gone after next season, and plenty of opportunity awaits on the wing. John Beilein has been highly successful at developing and utilizing talented wings in his system before sending them off to the NBA. He did it with Tim Hardaway Jr., Nick Stauskas, and now Caris LeVert is about to get drafted.
A source told me that putting your money on one of those two would be a good bet. But the list doesn't stop there. Oregon needs a high-level wing to replace Dillon Brooks after next season, and they have the spot. Another source pointed them out as a player as soon as Matthews became available. Xavier and UCONN have open spots as well.
Bottom line, Matthews is an option that makes a lot of sense for Illinois. But he doesn't appear to be a feasible one right now. It's important to remember one other factor in this situation. Illinois is potentially a difficult sell being that Matthews would sit out all year, and if the Illini don't make the tournament, John Groce is probably out the door. Then, he'd either have to play for a coach he didn't commit to or transfer yet again. Most players don't want to be caught in that predicament.
For now, expect Illinois to hold onto the spot and look for some backcourt help on the fifth-year market. There isn't much out there right now, but past years have shown that is fit to change in the coming months.
Jeremy Werner, publisher
Fiction. You covered all the behind the scenes very well, Mr. Piper. But the reason I and Illini fans think this won't happen is simply because it makes too much sense from the Illinois perspective. In a lot of ways, it reminds you of Charlie Moore. It makes too much sense for Matthews, who was recruited heavily by Illinois as a prep, to choose them on the second time around. It makes too much sense for Matthews to see a wide-open opportunity to play a huge role for the in-state team when he's eligible for the 2017-18 season.
But if you take off your orange-and-blue goggles, Michigan and Michigan State are just way sexier and easier sells. Michigan has dipped the last two seasons due to injuries, but they made an NCAA Tournament last season despite those injuries (unlike Illinois). They have playing time too, and some nice NCAA Tournament banners, including a runner-up finish, in recent years. Plus, John Belein has produced less talented wings into pros. And, well, Michigan State is the king of the Big Ten and Matthews would be surrounded by other NBA talents and a coach who's shown he can provide a great ladder to the NBA. Oregon's basketball program is on the rise, and Dana Altman has put the Ducks into the national conversation after a decade of hard work.
Illinois remains the tough decision for top talents, like Matthews. You just hope top 2017 targets Jordan Goodwin and Jeremiah Tilmon -- both of whom Izzo wants too -- don't feel the same way.