Werner Mailbag: July 6

Illini Inquirer publisher Jeremy Werner answers premium members' questions about Illinois football and basketball in his latest mailbag.

Trooper804: Who will win a Big Ten title next - Illinois football or basketball?

Let's start this thing strong with a strong question. I still side with basketball because I think 1) the talent gap between Illinois and the top Big Ten teams is smaller;  2) turning around a basketball program is a quicker fix than football (you just need a few great recruits); 3) basketball has recent history on his side (football has won three Big Ten titles over the last 53 years while basketball has won five Big Ten titles since 1998).

Illinois football's arrow is pointed up. They finally have some stability thanks to Josh Whitman's hire of Lovie Smith -- giving football arguably more momentum than basketball. But football has a much steeper mountain to climb. Ohio State is a monster. Michigan State is now a top-10 program. Michigan looks destined to once again be among the national elite behind Jim Harbaugh. In the West Division, Wisconsin has remained a consistent top-25 program despite multiple coaching changes. While Nebraska struggled in Year 1 under Mike Riley, the program still has huge resources and a great recruiting reach. The Illini have a chance to go bowling in 2016 but likely will be one of the league's bottom teams in 2017 due to the previous staff's struggles to recruit linemen. 

A look at previous coaches shows it takes some time to be in the discussion. Mark Dantonio won his first conference title in Year 4 at Michigan State. Bret Bielema won his first Big Ten title in Year 5 at Wisconsin. Kirk Ferentz won his first Big Ten title in Year 4. And the Big Ten didn't have Meyer or Harbaugh in the league then. I have confidence that Lovie will lead Illinois to a point that it can be in West Division contention. Maybe Illinois will jump a big hurdle and make a Big Ten title game in the next five five to seven years.  But winning against an East power in that game seems like just as big of a hurdle.

Illinois basketball's arrow seemingly is pointed down, but the roster is talented this year. John Groce still has a chance to add Class of 2017 talent that could give them a chance to win a Big Ten title. Michigan State, Indiana, Michigan, Maryland and Wisconsin are all great, stable programs. But the gap seems a bit more manageable to leap than football.


DCudds: Can Illinois win a Big Ten Championship with Lovie Smith? Can we become a power on our side of the conference?

As I stated above, it's possible but I think Illinois is years away from that being realistic. And given the state of Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State -- and to a lesser extent -- Wisconsin, that will be really tough to pull off. I think Illinois has Iowa and Wisconsin potential, but look how long it took those programs to become established top-25 programs -- and look how difficult it is to maintain that. Illinois should be better than Purdue and Minnesota, in my opinion, given their resources and recruiting base. Illinois is the state's flagship and should in the long-term be better than Northwestern. But the Wildcasts have picked much better leaders in the last few decades so it will take time to pass them up. It's a step-by-step process for a program like Illinois. It won't happen overnight. It won't be easy to maintain success, as we've seen in the past in Champaign. But sure, it's all possible if you get the right people in leadership. It'll probably be five years before we really know if Whitman and Lovie can lift Illinois to those levels.


illinoisfan15: 

  1. Assuming there are no injuries/suspensions next year, what is the minimum threshold for JG to reach for his job to be safe (last 4 in, sweet 16, etc.)?
  2. How's the Baseball team going to look next year aftet losing so much talent the last 2 years?
  3. Do any of Illinois' top coaches have a chance of being poached this offseason (Hambly, Small, Hartleb,etc.)?

1. I know people want a definitive answer. I want a definitive answer, but Josh Whitman smartly hasn't set the minimum for Groce to earn Year 6. My take always has been, you'll know progress when you see it. If Illinois finishes in the top-six of the Big Ten and adds a top-20 recruiting class (with Jeremiah Tilmon and/or Jordan Goodwin in the fold), I think you have a pretty easy answer. If Illinois misses the NCAA Tournament, I think you have your answer. If Illinois ekes into the NCAA Tournament's Last Four In (say with an eighth or ninth place conference finish), doesn't win any Tournament games and doesn't land a recruiting class that inspires confidence (no Tilmon nor Goodwin), Whitman could easily make a change if he thinks he can land a better coach.

2. Illinois baseball had a tough-luck season losing 10 of its first 11 one-run games, which kept it from the Big Ten Tournament and any chance at the NCAA Tournament. But Illinois has upped its talent level the last few years. It's just a young, inexperienced team. The Illini should be in contention for the Big Ten Tournament next season, but I don't think they'll be in contention for a Big Ten title again until 2018.

3. Unlikely. Small loves Illinois, where he's paid well and has all the facilities he's wanted. I just don't see Small leaving Illinois for anything other than a senior tour career. Hartleb just received a huge contract extension and his family loves Champaign. Hambly has built a strong program at Illinois but has struggled to get Illinois over that hump from really good to national elite. He's originally from out West but he has great security and comfort at Illinois. Justin Spring is an Illinois alum. Brad Dancer has really hit his stride at Illinois. It's always possible to have a coach poached, but I highly doubt it happens this summer.


tmiller33: 

  1. Does Lovie's calm demeanor hurt him in recruiting? Seems like kids normally respond more to the ra ra guys.
  2. What constitutes a successful year for football? Does on-field matter or is it all about recruiting.

I don't think so at all. There are several ways to do it. Jim Harbaugh and P.J. Fleck sell one way, and it attracts certain players. Urban Meyer, Kirk Ferentz and Wisconsin sell in a much more understated way and it's worked great for them. I will say this to Illini fans: I don't doubt Lovie Smith's ability to recruit. While he's quiet in the media, Lovie is really charismatic in person. He makes people feel comfortable. He's a father/uncle figure who puts both high school players and parents at ease. He can be funny without trying too hard. He can be stern without yelling. He's just smooth.

If Illinois gets to a bowl game, it's an extremely successful year. If they don't make a bowl game, it's probably a successful year if they land a marquee upset win, create some excitement and land a top-45 recruiting class. On-the-field success matters but Kirk Ferentz went just 4-19 his first two seasons at Iowa. Pat Fitzgerald went 10-14 his first two seasons at Northwestern. Even Ron Zook went 4-19 during his first two seasons while landing great recruiting classes that led to the 2007 Rose Bowl season. 2016 wins will only help recruiting though, especially since I think wins will be hard to come by in 2017.


From timbo1: With regard to Lovie, have you seen or sensed any sort of frustration, disillusionment or resignation with regard to Illinois in general and recruiting in particular?

I'm not quite sure what you mean by this. Is Lovie frustrated, disillusioned or resigned about Illinois? Heck no. Lovie didn't take this job just to collect a paycheck. He is intrigued by the opportunity at Illinois and has showed a lot of enthusiasm about it so far, especially in recruiting. He's gotten after it with the satellite camps and from what I've heard he seems to really enjoy the competition involved in recruiting. His staff is excited, and they feed off of him. The staff is going to shoot high for recruits. Does that mean they'll land a top-30 class this year? Nah. Illinois needs time to turn this around, and they know that. They know Illinois' strengths (academics, the flagship state school, a storied distant past, etc.) and sell those.


majgardner11: What is coach cubit doing now?

I talked to Cubit this spring a day before he and his wife moved to Florida. He said he wants to stay involved in coaching somehow. He loves the game and loves teaching young men. He may spend some time volunteering at local high schools this year. I think the FCS level would really interest him, where he can focus more on just football.

Why hasn't the football staff filled the remaining scholarships?

I've mentioned this before but I have been unable to get any buzz out of Illinois filling its few open scholarships left in the Class of 2016. Now, is that because there is nothing to buzz about or because Illinois wants to be stealth? There are open scholarships. There are needs, especially at running back and receiver. But there aren't many good players sitting out there on the market (even the fifth-year market). The other option Illinois has is to back-count some early enrollee 2017 signees (junior college players or early-enrollee prep prospects).

What is the thing to do with the remaining bkb scholarship?

Fill it with the best available fifth-year transfer, a shooting guard who can defend if he is available. I doubt this player will have a huge impact, but if he can help add depth in any way, why not? Illinois could choose to keep it open for a mid-year transfer, but the staff needs to win this year. So they'll probably be on the lookout for a late option, much like Khalid Lewis last year.

What skills are the focus this summer for the bkb team?

Malcolm Hill must work on his explosion and three-point shot. Tracy Abrams, Leron BlackMike Thorne and Te'Jon Lucas must get healthy. Thorne needs to work on his balance in the post. Black must polish that midrange to three-point shot to make him more versatile, but he must continue to work on his defensive technique to cut down on fouls. Jalen Coleman-Lands was great as a freshman, but must work on that attack game. He gradually improved on attacking the rim and creating for teammates, but must add strength and explosion so he can finish around the rim. Aaron Jordan must gain confidence, quicken his release and add strength. D.J. Williams must add strength and explosion. While his jumper must improve, I hope he focuses on defense and rebounding -- two areas that can earn him an increased role. Kipper Nichols needs to work on that jump shot. Mav Morgan has spent a lot of time adding strength and must continue to improve his toughness in the post and on the glass. Michael Finke will slide into a more comfortable role at the stretch 4, but he must continue to hone his post skills and improve his ability to attack off the dribble.

Who will be the top 3 surprises in Illinois bkb?

I don't know if there will be three players who really surprise this season. We know what this roster is and what the rotation should be -- if healthy. Thorne, Morgan, Black and Finke give the Illini one of the stronger post rotations -- if healthy. Hill will be one of the best players in the Big Ten. Point guard is improved -- if Abrams stays healthy. But it's hard for me to say that Lucas, Williams, Jordan or Nichols will be a surprise because 1) opportunity is a bit limited -- if the team is healthy; and 2) none have shown much to have utmost confidence in a breakout. I do think Finke could see a big boost this season and could compete for a starting spot because he complements Thorne really well.


TheBeastisback: What is the bb conference record this season and how deep does the team get into the Tourney?

I think the conference schedule is pretty favorable. I'm going to assume health -- a tricky proposition -- and pick the Illini to go 10-8. To play your projection game, I'll say on July 5 (five months before the start of the season) that the Illini make the NCAA Tournament as an eight seed. That likely means an exit in the first weekend.


C6Z06:  In the unlikely event that Coach Groce doesn't achieve whatever goals AD Whitman has for him .............and he is let go at the conclusion of next years season.

Name 2 homerun hires of an already well established name that you think realistically we would actually have a fair shot at getting them to come here. 

Also, in your opinion, what are the top 2 or 3 "up and coming" young coaches that you personally think might be a good fit here at Illinois.   Which one is your favorite and why ?

I think Groce has the team to make the NCAA Tournament, so this may be for naught but I won't duck your question.

I don't know what qualifies as home-run hires, but I expect Cuonzo Martin would be very interested in the job. He's been very interested in other power-five jobs. He's recruited really well at Cal, and would likely get Illinois in the door for top Chicago recruits (he landed Charlie Moore). Dayton coach Archie Miller would be a phenomenal hire, but I heard he wasn't interested in Illinois if it had opened last year. Can Josh Whitman change his mind? I'm still not confident. If Billy Donovan wants to leave the Thunder with Durant gone, Illinois would have to show interest but few would give up on an NBA job. I thought Bryce Drew was a great fit for Illinois and heard he would have been very, very interested. Would he leave Vandy after a year. I also think Colorodo's Tad Boyle is a very good coach at a program with a low ceiling, and Northern Iowa's Ben Jacobson could be in for another big year.

I didn't have a lot of "up-and-comers" on my working list last year. It seemed a shallow year, for those, especially in the Midwest. I don't know if you can call 50-year-old Scott Nagy -- a Centennial grad and son of former Illini assistant Dick Nagy who just took a slight step up from South Dakota State to Wright State -- an "up-and-comer" but he's intriguing. A few names to watch a few years from now: Illinois State's Dan Muller, Vanderbilt's Roger Powell and UW-Milwaukee's LaVall Jordan.


KewaneeCE1: The women basketball players who filed suit against the University all received a monetary settlement. Beckman and the University agreed to a final settlement and statement. What about Simon Cvijanovic? I can't imagine him and his father would have let the matter drop without having their hand out. Was there a silent settlement made with them?

To my knowledge, Cvijanovic never filed a suit so there was nothing to settle. He told me after his initial tweet barrage that no lawyers would take his case. Cvijnaovic has said that his whole goal was to get Beckman fired so that no student would ever experience his alleged negative experiences. He achieved his goal. I said last year that if Cvijanovic ultimately wanted to give student-athletes more of a voice -- like Northwestern's union efforts intended -- than it was an admirable cause. If players are abused, they should feel like they have an outlet where they will be heard. Cvijanovic felt that wasn't the case at Illinois. Though we may argue how he accomplished those goals, Cvijanovic's means helped oust a supposedly abusive coach and force Illinois to implement practices to make sure it never happens again. He and the women's basketball players also set a precedent for other student-athletes to speak up, which has led to women's basketball coaches resigning at Nebraska and getting dismissed at Loyola, respectively. As I said all along, Illinois was the guinea pig in this experiment. What happened here has had an effect across college athletics -- some for the better (holding abusive coaches accountable), maybe some for the worse (depending on who you ask).


LOYALTOILLINOIS: What is Nathan's job with the new staff? Does he still coach the running backs?

Scheelhaase still doesn't have an official title. I was told he could return to a role under director of football operations Tim Knox or he could take a quality control coach job. The NCAA only allows nine assistant coaches and four graduate assistants on the field for practices. Quality control coaches can't coach on the field, but  they basically serve as assistants to the nine staff members -- splicing up film, mentoring players off the field or do other tasks that lessen the load on the coaching staff.


1spirit: Any updates/info on former Illini MB players where they might be playing or what they're doing now?

After playing in Australia and Japan the last few seasons, Demetri McCamey returned to the NBA Developmental League and is on the Austin Spurs roster. In 41 games last season, he averaged 9.1 points, 2.5 rebounds and 2.3 assists and shot 41.4 percent from the field.

Brandon Paul has battled shoulder injuries but is currently playing on the Hornets summer league team and is averaging 14.7 points and 6.7 rebounds through his first three games.

Former teammate Nnanna Egwu is on the Magic summer league roster and is averaging 5.0 points and 3.0 rebounds through his first two games. Egwu spent last year with the Erie Bayhawks of the NBADL and averaged 9.2 points, 7.2 rebounds and 1.3 blocks over 50 games.

Rayvonte Rice played for Tezenis Verona in Italy last year and averaged 13.6 points and 4.5 rebounds per game.

Trent Meacham spent last year playing for French League Champion ASVEL Basket, which is run by Spurs guard Tony Parker, and averaged 8.0 points and 3.4 assists.

Mike Davis spent last season playing for Turkey's Best Balikesir, where he averaged 14.2 points and 9.7 rebounds per game.

D.J. Richardson spent last year playing for Kouvot in Finland, where he averaged 16.6 points and shot 37.5 percent from three.

Shaun Pruitt spent last season in the Dominican Republic, and Brian Randle plays for Israeli power Maccabi Tel Aviv. Randle has received the Israeli League Best Defender three times (2009, 2014, 2015). He averaged 11.7 points and 4.7 rebounds last season.


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