The first of three live periods begins on Wednesday, as John Groce and the Illini staff will join many across the country in watching the AAU circuit heat up once again.
This is an opportunity for the coaches to be front and center watching their top targets just before many will cut down their lists and take official visits. Evaluating younger talent and fine-tuning priority lists are important as well.
July is a wild month on the hoops circuit, and here are five things that I'll be watching during this crucial time period.
Jordan Goodwin watch
The most important recruit for the Illini hoops program to track is none other than St. Louis Eagles wing Jordan Goodwin. He is a potential game-changer in the 2017 class, and you can bet the Illinois staff will do everything they can to make him feel like a must-get priority. The Illini were three-deep during one of Goodwin's games in Indianapolis in May, and that may not be the last time you see it.
Goodwin went into the spring on a mission to prove his premier status, and he was immensely impressive with 16.4 points, 9.6 rebounds and 3.7 assists per game on the EYBL circuit. He was the only guard in the EYBL to rank in the top 10 in rebounding. He led a team without its five-star center -- Jeremiah Tilmon -- to a Peach Jam bid. He was the best player on the court against blue-chip quality talent.
Goodwin shot up to No. 56 in the latest Scout.com 2017 rankings, but he is still hungry to get that top-50 designation. He's focused on adding more hardware to his collection as well. When the lights are bright and the competition is turned up to the max, that's when Goodwin is at his best. We'll see it this week down at Peach Jam.
It will be interesting to see what other programs make sure to have a front-row seat. Goodwin got a significant spike in offers during the spring, and that has placed some threats in the mix with Illinois. The days of this being a border war between Illinois and Mizzou are long gone. While Goodwin hasn't narrowed his list publicly, Illinois, Michigan State and Texas appear to be the big three players. We'll see how often Tom Izzo and Shaka Smart join Groce in the 'Jack Nicholson seats' for Goodwin's games.
Watching AAU games isn't as simple as it sounds when it comes to head coaches during the live periods in July. There is a lot of story-telling and hand-shaking with other coaches, while watching players you've seen many times before. But who coaches are watching and when is important, and it is methodically planned by the staff in advance.
High-level players want to feel like top priorities, which means a supreme amount of attention from the head coach. At the same time, coaches want to make sure they see enough players to keep their options open.
Recruits and their parents pay attention to who is watching. They want to see the interest level put in motion, and see if you mean what you say. Who the head coach is watching most is typically a good indicator of where things stand on the priority list.
Groce and others have been known to travel far and wide during the live periods. Groce may be in a gym in one state until after 10 p.m. and then be in another gym in another state for the 9 a.m. games the next day. That is the life of a college basketball coach in July.
I'll be looking to see which targets -- outside of Goodwin -- that Groce watches the most. And how many swigs of coffee he takes per minute played.
If there was ever a time for a wake-up call for legacy commit DaMonte Williams, it was this spring. Williams dropped from being a top-50 prospect in the 2017 class to finding himself outside of the top 100. Scout.com national basketball analyst Brian Snow hit the nail on the head last fall.
"The question becomes does he have the alpha dog in him to dominate games," Snow wrote. "A lot is expected of Williams, but if he doesn't get the kind of assertiveness needed to be a star, he is someone who could drop."
Drop he did. Williams didn't play with consistent assertiveness. His motor was questioned. He disappeared in big games. There's no doubting his natural ability, and the kind of player he can ultimately become at the next level. But he has to live up to that on the court.
The Mac Irvin Fire 17U squad failed to make Peach Jam, but they will still have eyes on them throughout the month. That is an opportunity for Williams change the rhetoric surrounding his game. The people around him liked the progress he made in the gym in June. He stopped by Champaign for a pair of open gyms last month as well.
Whatever has been said before about Williams can define him or be his motivation. It's on him to let his game speak.
Rise of in-state underclassmen
Much has been made of Morgan Park rising junior Ayo Dosunmu, and for good reason. The 6-foot-3 point guard elevated to five-star status in the latest updates to the Scout.com 2018 rankings. Champaign product Tim Finke has garnered plenty of attention. He was a top-25 prospect entering this spring, but he's slipped down to No. 51 in the latest update. In-state 2018 prospects Talen Horton-Tucker, Xavier Castaneda and Kezo Brown are ones to watch this month as well, and they could add a number of offers if they show out.
The spotlight will reach even younger prospects in the state too. Normal West big man Francis Okoro is rated as a four-star in the 2019 class, and he was just one spot on the outside of the Scout.com 2019 top 25. Okoro is a high-ceiling post player with length and athleticism. He runs the floor, blocks shots, rebounds and finishes with authority around the rim. Okoro is a center piece on the talented St. Louis Eagles 16U squad, who will compete for the Peach Jam title this week.
Top in-state 2019 point guard Marquise Walker said "Illinois is at the top" with him after visiting Champaign and picking up an offer in June. Walker was a standout with St. Joe's at the state tournament in Peoria last March, and he has a bright future as a playmaker that can score. Walker will play with Nike Team Florida in the 15U EYBL tournament this week featuring the top eight teams in the league.
Buzz is starting to spread about Peoria Manual rising freshman Adam Miller as well. Miller has a chance to be special as an up-and-coming point guard with loads of talent and skill. Miller took an unofficial visit to Champaign last month, and that was a positive for the home-state program to be his first college visit. Miller will play with the Mac Irvin Fire 15U team this month, and it's only a matter of time before he begins to attract national attention.
Adding to the target list
The Illini have plenty of targets on the scholarship chart in the 2017 class, as they are preparing to make their push to land an high-impact class this fall. The priority list is pretty well set at the top with Goodwin and Tilmon. They have their prime targets locked in at key positions as well.
Four-star Florida product Trent Frazier is the focal point when it comes to adding a point guard. Illinois has bigs in line after Tilmon, and that starts with Minneapolis-area center Theo John. The Illini wouldn't mind taking two big guys if the opportunity is there. They have been targeting Victor Uyaelunmo and Mayan Kiir down in Florida.
But July always brings about opportunities to identify late-bloomers and other backup options. The Illini didn't offer 2016 point guard Te'Jon Lucas until July, and he turned out to be the one to end Illinois' point guard drought with a commitment in September. Lucas entered last July without a high-major offer, but his play that month drew attention from a handful of suitors.
You may see a few 2017 prospects follow a similar path, and the Illini typically throw out a couple more offers in July. That will be a development to keep tabs on, especially with as many as four more spots to fill in the class.