Piper mailbag: June 14

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

I saw in an article Derek that Illinois had reached out to four other athletes and could not bring them in because of the Nunn situation. Do you know who those 4 were?

I don’t know what a particular writer’s source told him/her. But I can tell you that having to wait on Nunn’s situation did hurt Illinois in terms of using his scholarship elsewhere. The Illini felt pretty confident they could get Milwaukee transfer Akeem Springs, who would have been a perfect replacement. Springs averaged 13.2 points and 5.3 rebounds per game last season. But Illinois couldn’t pursue that option, and Springs ended up at Minnesota.

You could throw LA Tech transfer four-man Merrill Holden into this conversation as well. Holden averaged 8.1 points and five rebounds per game last season. Like Springs, he would have immediate eligibility. Holden had plans in place to visit Illinois after his official to Iowa State. But the Illini didn’t have a guaranteed scholarship at the time, and he ended up committing to Iowa State.

It’s obvious to think there were others that Illinois had interest in but couldn’t do anything because they were waiting on Nunn.

Derek, can you speculate on what the priority order is with this 2017 class of recruits? Obviously Goodwin and Tilmon are top priority, but after that it's hard to tell. I'm especially curious to know where Lewis, Eastern, and Smith fit in. Personally, I'm a big fan of Lewis and would love to see him in that priority 2 spot along with John.

As you mentioned, Jordan Goodwin and Jeremiah Tilmon are on that top line of the priority list. I think Theo John, Trent Frazier and Nojel Eastern round out the top five. Terrence Lewis is right up there, and he is higher than Justin Smith.

There's a lot in play here - any chance you can provide an opinion on "if x then not y" meaning, if we land a certain guy, then this guy should be off the table -- doesn't have to be a prediction on who we get, just where the overlap is -- I have a guess, but I'm sure you have a much better feel

There are a few overlaps, but with four more available spots in this class, you can afford to take guys at the same position. So I wouldn’t say ‘if Theo John then not Jeremiah Tilmon or Victor Uyaelunmo. I think if Illinois gets Trent Frazier, they’re probably done at point guard in this class. But if Paul Scruggs wants to come, they’re not telling him no.

With Da’Monte Williams and Javon Pickett committed, the staff doesn’t want to take too many wings. I’d feel confident in saying: If Nojel Eastern then not Justin Smith. But landing Eastern isn’t going to do anything to stop Illinois’ chase of Jordan Goodwin, even if he is a wing as well.

On a scale of 1 (very worried) to 10 (very confident) where would you place your confidence level with Tilmon and Goodwin? Are there any positive signs that point to a commitment soon? If you had to fathom a guess as to who will be in the 17 class who would be your picks?

Don’t think either one will be committing before the fall. I’d give Goodwin a 6. I like Illinois’ position. I still think they have a slight lead. But Michigan State and Texas are scary. The Spartans have produced players who fit Goodwin’s style like Draymond Green and Denzel Valentine. Oh, and they win A LOT. Goodwin lives to win. Texas is attractive because Goodwin really likes Shaka Smart.

Tilmon’s situation is complicated. I would put him at a 3 or 4. We’ve said that the longer this drags out, the more Illinois fans should worry. Well, it’s dragging out. Some sources have said Illinois still appears to be the best bet. On the other hand, I think the Illinois staff's confidence level has dropped a notch or two.

Kansas has become a pretty threatening foe. North Carolina is up there too, and they’ve made Tilmon their top big man priority. Tilmon’s mom is going to have a lot of say in this one. It’s been pretty stagnant since the end of April. I think things will heat up in August and September.

Any chance we get Lewis and Theo John on campus for officals?

The Illini have been talking with John and his parents for weeks about them coming for an official visit this month. But a date has yet to be locked in.


As for Lewis, I think there’s a chance they could get in the mix for an official in the fall. But there are a good number of programs in contention.

Is Alonzo Verge a backup plan or a priority recruit?

Verge is in a category all on his own. It’s simply a ‘wait and see’ situation. You can’t make him a priority recruit right now. He’s too talented to be a backup plan. Not to mention, you usually set up backup plans that you know are reasonably attainable.

The problem is that there isn’t much certainty with Verge off the court. He’s about to make his fourth high school switch since the end of his sophomore year, and he hasn’t decide where that will be yet. Qualifying questions are the biggest ones right now, a la Marcus LoVett.

If John and Frazier are almost ready to make a decision
...How soon might it happen?
...If either were to commit to Illinois, would they make an official visit first?

Both are candidates to take official visits to Champaign this month, and they could make their decision by the end of the month as well. And yes, neither would be committing to Illinois without an official visit to Champaign first.

Where is Nunn transferring?

No idea. His family met with a D-2 school earlier this month. There’s a rumor he went down to Texas A&M this week. We’ll see.

What are some of the things DJW, Finke, & AJ have to improve on to become big contributors next year?

I am interested to know what kind of strides DJ and AJ are making in both the weight room and in their overall skillset? These two need to make significant sophomore leaps because they are going to be key depth players on this roster!

With D.J. Williams, he has to continue to work on his shot. If he’s open for a three, he has to be able to knock it down. He did that at Northwestern, but he was 0-9 from deep in all other games. I think he has potential in the mid-range as well. I also believe he needs to work on finding go-to spots on the floor and have moves to utilize. D.J. has a lot of natural ability, and he can get to the basket. He just needs to become more refined, and know when to look for his shot. He showed last year that he’s going to crash the glass. He’s going to play with a lot of energy. Developing more all-around strength and further understanding the system are big things for him as well.

Finke needs to get stronger and more agile. He needs to continue building core strength so he doesn’t get pushed around in the paint. That’ll help him to improve defensively and with rebounding position. He needs to work on being quicker with his feet, while also maintaining balance. I know Adam Fletcher is really focused on Finke’s explosion. That comes into play with quick-twitch movements, and also getting more rise out of his jump. I think that would help him immensely. Offensively, I think he plays his game pretty well. He’s not a back-to-the-basket scorer, and he doesn’t need to be one with Mike Thorne Jr. and Maverick Morgan down low.

A.J. has quite a few focus areas. He’s been working on his stroke to become smoother with his release. He can be a really good spot-up shooter, and he was expected to be that even as a freshman. I think part of what held him back from being that was his shot preparation and positioning. When he got the ball, he wasn’t always ready to shoot. He also needs to learn more about the system at both ends. He looked lost out on the court many times. He needs to improve defensively. I think that comes with experience, but also having an understanding of rotations and where to be at all times. Lastly, he needs to develop his game off the bounce. Having the ability to drive and create will open up his game immensely. And like Williams, A.J. needs to develop more all-around strength.

I'm hearing that ILL is still sitting very well with Goodwin are you getting that same sentiment?

Yes, I’ve been hearing that all along. Nothing has really changed with Illinois’ position. The only thing that’s changed is the competition. Illinois, Michigan State and Texas are the big three.

I know you are a basketball guy but what are your expectations for the football team this upcoming season?

I don’t have big expectations, but I am pretty intrigued to see what this coaching staff can do. Yes, Wes Lunt should be one of the better quarterbacks in the Big Ten. But I am concerned about his weapons. Losing Geronimo Allison is a significant blow, and being without Mike Dudek for another season hurts even worse. Meanwhile, there are major holes to fill on defense.

I think Lovie Smith and Hardy Nickerson will be great at scheming, and Lovie’s defense has always been designed to prevent the big play. But they need more talent for it to operate like a top-half Big Ten defense, in my opinion.

What are your pre top 3 head coaching candidates for 2017 if this season doesn't go well?

Archie Miller, Fred Hoiberg and Cuonzo Martin.

Da’Monte Williams was recently knocked from ESPN and Scout’s top 100. What’s your take on this? Any concern about his motor?

Gave my take on it HERE. There are concerns about his motor and competitive fire on a game-to-game basis. All about consistency with him – not ability.

Are you able to comment on how the players feel about their teammates’ decisions?

Can’t really speak for them. I’d imagine there was some disappointment.

At this point, it looks like the below will be our team. 

PG - Abrams, Lucas, Tate

2G - JCL, AJ

SF - Hill, DJW

PF - Black, Finke, Nichols 

C - Thorne, Morgan

Of those 12 players.... I see at least 10 players that have already, can now or will in the future be legitimate double-digit scorers in capability. (Perhaps Tate and maybe Nichols are the only ones that flat-out cannot or we just do not know yet.) 

With that said, we can intelligently guess that Hill will be our leading scorer, but who in your opinion will be the 2nd and 3rd leading scorer on this team and what would those per game numbers be ?  

I’d say Jalen Coleman-Lands will be second with around 14 points per game. I’d slot Mike Thorne Jr. in at No. 3 with around 12 points per game.

Will this team create an Identity? And if yes, what will it be? (Thus far, this team has no tangible identity)  

Do you foresee any changes in the coaching approach this season? As one poster mentions, we've never really had an identity under Groce, so considering hot seat status, do you think he hangs his hat on something about a player/rotation/pace of play or other this season to forge an identity and get us back to the dance?

Groce’s ideal style of play on offense is an up-and-down pace with a dynamic point guard to create and weapons around the perimeter. But he hasn’t had that kind of point guard. There’s no doubt that Groce’s teams have struggled to maintain an identity year-to-year. Last year, they struggled to develop one with injuries and lack of experience.

You have to adapt your identity to your roster. Obviously, Malcolm Hill is going to be the focal point of the offense. Jalen Coleman-Lands is going to be a shot-maker, and the upgrades at point guard should help. I really think Mike Thorne Jr. changes the dynamic of this team, and if he stays healthy, he can help the Illini have an established identity. You can play inside-out with him, and Maverick Morgan can score down low as well.

Meanwhile, the Illini can be versatile at the four with Leron Black, Michael Finke and even Kipper Nichols. With a healthy roster, Groce can develop rotations and game plan for certain combinations. He didn’t have that luxury last season.

The final piece of the identity is at the defensive end. The Illini should be sounder defensively with Thorne and Black in the frontcourt. They still don’t have a true rim protector. On-ball defense on the perimeter is key. You worry about Abrams’ lateral quickness after his injuries. You need the sophomores to improve greatly at that end. This isn’t a roster that has a handful of defensive stoppers. But they need to be committed to that end of the floor as a unit.

Give me a number..... Combined rebounds per game of Thorne and Black if they're healthy. 

This number will depend on Groce’s frontcourt rotations. But I’d expect around 14 rebounds per game between the two on average – assuming they’re both healthy.

What can we expect from Kipper next year? What does he look like in practice/scrimmages? Is he a scorer like Malcolm? Or more of a defensive presence like Black?

Kipper brings intangibles that Illinois lacks, which is why his addition is pretty significant. He is a great on-ball defender. He's very tough, physically strong and athletic. He's versatile as well, and he can slash to the bucket. Kipper has a capable jumper, but he needs to develop more consistency. He's a streaky jump-shooter. I think he will make his biggest impact right away as a defender and rebounder.

With how well he defends, it may be hard for Groce to keep him off the floor in crunch time.

Is Lucas playing again yet?

Not yet. He’s able to do some shooting and light running. He will be limited with what he can do, and what he’s allowed to do, this summer. The staff understands when he needs to be ready. They’re not going to push him too hard.

Do you feel like, Sammy Maniscalco said on the Tay and J show, that losing Nunn will be a case of addition by subtraction? He just didn't seem as locked in as I had seen him in the past.

From an overall perspective, I wouldn’t classify Nunn’s exit as an addition by subtraction. He was going to be one of the top six returning scorers in the Big Ten. You want that guy on your roster when you have to make the tournament this season.

Does it apply in certain areas? Yeah, I think that is fair. Nunn was not a leader – or the right kind of leader. He was lax with his defensive effort. He didn’t hold other guys accountable. Based on my conversations with people around the program, Kendrick is a big loss in terms of on-court talent. But not really a loss for the team culture.

How likely is that Illinois fills that final scholarship?

I’d say it’s pretty likely. Who they’re going to fill it with is the big question. But the hope is that a serviceable fifth-year guard becomes available. You don’t want that scholarship to go unused during a make-or-break season.

Have you heard if the staff is going to doing team building events this summer and any staff development training events? I remember Weber took his staff to the Suns summer camp one year, I think.

They do team-building activities every summer. I haven’t heard any specifics about the plans for this summer. Groce will talk to the media soon and I’ll be sure to ask him. They’ve been busy with camps to this point.

I also really hate the way we have handled situations at the end of a game or the end of a half. We wait too long, accomplish too little, and apply virtually no pressure to the opposing defense.

Is that a concern for the coaching staff to the point where they would re-think their philosophy of when a play is initiated and how (isolation versus set)?

You would think so. Obviously, Illinois wants the ball in Hill’s hands in those scenarios. But simple isolation didn’t provide desirable results. The point guard situation definitely hurt. You didn’t want non-scoring threats like Tate and Lewis on the court in those instances. But as you mentioned, I think developing late-game sets should be a big focus area for this staff. Reverting back to last season’s “plan” would point to a lack of preparation.

How will Illinois create more chances around the rim this season (a constant struggle for Groce's teams)?

There’s one simple answer: Mike Thorne Jr. We saw him get a variety of post touches early on last season, and I’d expect more of the same this year. He is an offensive threat with his back to the basket, and he creates space in the paint with his frame. With Thorne and Black, the Illini will also be much better at grabbing offensive boards and getting put-back scores.

Beyond that, I think you look at the point guard spot to create more opportunities. If Tracy Abrams and Te’Jon Lucas are at least capable of hitting the three – and they should be – defenses can’t sag into the paint like they did with Jaylon Tate and Khalid Lewis on the floor. Abrams and Lucas can also create off the ball-screen to get into the lane and make things happen.

I’d also add that a big focus for Jalen Coleman-Lands is to develop his dribble-drive game, and that can open things up as well.

We have a number of offers out for 2017. Are all offers committable and is it first come, first serve (of course position matters!). If not, who will they wait on? (Goodwin?)

Not all offers are committable. I think ‘first come, first serve’ is the general philosophy, especially with four available spots. Like you said, position is a big factor. The Illini know they need a point guard and at least one big. There is a limit on how many wings they’ll take. But there’s going to be a spot waiting for Jordan Goodwin. Same with Jeremiah Tilmon. I think both will make their decisions in the fall, so that shouldn’t be a problem.

Are there any 5th year transfers that you would take if you were the head coach at the U of I?

If I could get him, I’d say Jordan Matthews from Cal. But Gonzaga has been said to be the favorite, and his dad has ties there. Outside of that, I’d wait on the market.

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