Piper's priorities: How should Illini use remaining 2017 scholarships?

Lead basketball reporter Derek Piper breaks down the top five options for the Illini to use their last scholarships in the 2017 class.

John Groce and his staff made another big splash in the 2017 pool on Sunday with a commitment from top-100 point guard Trent Frazier, and the Illini aren't done making waves.

Illinois currently sits with the No. 3 class in the 2017 Scout.com team rankings. Of course, there is plenty of time for movement with 22 of the 29 five-star prospects still on the board.

But the Illini have one of those in five-star big man Jeremiah Tilmon. Frazier is No. 78 in the class, and Da'Monte Williams remains just on the outside in that top-130 range. Javon Pickett is a solid three-star prospect, and the Illini have two more spots left to take this from being a very good class to a great class.

Groce was nationally recognized as Recruiter of the Year in 2006 at Ohio State for powering the Buckeyes to the No. 2 class in the country. He especially played a key role with Daequan Cook and Mike Conley -- both five-star, top-20 talents.

Groce has a chance to replicate that effort as a head coach. Whether he gets that next five-star or not, Groce is one more big add from making this the signature class of his career.

Here are the top five options left on the board for Groce and his program in their continued chase for the best class they can possibly land.

Top 5 options

1. Kris Wilkes (5-star SF, North Central HS, Indianapolis, Ind.)


Wilkes is a future NBA wing with his length, versatility and explosiveness. The 6-foot-8 small forward can score in bunches on drives to the hoop or in the mid-range. He needs to improve his outside jumper. But he brings so much to the floor, which makes him one of the top 20 players in this class.

Illinois has put in plenty of work with Wilkes, especially assistant coach Jamall Walker. That is a big reason why the Illini made the cut in his top five, and now, they have an official visit slotted for Sept. 9-11. That's exactly what the Orange and Blue were hoping for, as the atmosphere should be 'on 10' with the Illini football team hosting North Carolina. A source told IlliniInquirer.com that Tilmon, Pickett and Williams all plan to be in town as well to bond with Wilkes and show him what he can join.

Indiana (Sept. 30-Oct. 2) and UCLA (Sept. 23-25) also have official visits lined up later on. Xavier has an in-home visit scheduled in the middle of the month. UCONN made the cut too, but no visit has been set at this point. The Illini were thought to be No. 5 when Wilkes' list was announced, but they seem to be climbing. Indiana and Xavier still have the odds on their side, but Illinois has a puncher's chance.

The Illini get the first official visit, which sets the stage for them to make a big impression. There doesn't appear to be much (if any) chance that he pulls the trigger. But while other officials will follow, Illinois does plan to do an in-home visit down the line before this one is all said and done.

2. Paul Scruggs (4-star combo guard, Southport HS, Indianapolis, Ind.)


The Illini already have their point guard for this class with Frazier, but that isn't halting their pursuit of Scruggs. The big-bodied combo guard has been high on Groce's priority list for some time. He wants the ball in his hands. Frazier wants the ball in his hands as well.

Illinois has expressed that Scruggs can join Frazier as a versatile playmaker in the backcourt. Both can play on or off the ball, and each one brings different things to the table. Playing two lead guards at once has proven to be an asset in college basketball, and that will be part of Illinois' sell. Scruggs is a bruiser with his toughness and physicality. He can bully his way into the lane and finish in traffic. He is also a good defender, and he is already physically ready for the college game.

Having Scruggs on the court with outside threats like Frazier and Jalen Coleman-Lands would make for a lethal backcourt trio. That being said, this still has the look of being a long shot. Scruggs got through his official visit trips to Indiana and Xavier without committing. He was considered a strong Xavier lean after the AAU season, and many foresaw this one being over by now. But the race continues.

Scruggs will head to UCONN this weekend for an official visit. Next weekend, he will be in Champaign for an official. If Scruggs decides not to reschedule his trip to Michigan State, Illinois will have the final campus visit -- which has proven to be a luxury in past recruitments. That leaves the window open, even if making this match is still unlikely.

3. Mayan Kiir (4-star PF, Victory Rock Prep, Bradenton, Fla.)


Kiir elevated himself into a top-level target for Illinois over the summer. The Illini extended an offer his way after liking what they saw in the spring. But while Kiir didn't have many other offers, Louisville was one of them and they had the inside track.

However, it became apparent into the summer months that Louisville had their sights locked in on Malik Williams. The Cardinals turned up the heat with the five-star big man, and they got a commitment from him early on this month. That opened the door wide open with Kiir, and Illinois already positioned themselves to dive into the thick of this race.

Kiir fits exactly what the Illini are looking for in another big man to go along with Tilmon in this class. He has length at 6-foot-9 to go along with his high motor, ferocity, skill and ability to run the floor. Kiir was the top rebounder at the adidas Gauntlet Finale in July with 13.7 rebounds per game. He has added some bulk to his frame over the last year too, which bodes well for the next level. 

The Illini are in the process of setting up an official visit with Kiir, who has already said he wants to make the trip to Champaign. N.C. State and VCU are also heavily involved, and UNLV has been in the mix. The N.C. State staff also turned up their pursuit in July -- making sure to be at every game during the final weekend. The Wolfpack already have a fair amount of frontcourt bodies set to be on their roster in 2017-18, as do the Illini.

Being able to sell early playing time will be key. VCU has plenty of that to offer. But Kiir can carve out a role at Illinois as well.

4. Abu Kigab (4-star SF, Prolific Prep, Hamilton, ON)


A month ago, the majority of Illini fans had no idea Kigab was even on the radar. The Jordan Goodwin recruitment gave the Illini faithful tunnel vision on the wing, and Goodwin took center stage after Tilmon committed early last month. It set up to be a home run waiting to happen for the Orange and Blue, until the bottom dropped off on Goodwin's curveball commitment to SLU.

Right there answers the question on why programs send out so many offers and put in time with a number of options. While it wasn't publicized much, Illinois has been putting in time with Kigab for a while. The Illini offered him a scholarship last summer, and Kigab told IlliniInquirer.com that he has been talking to assistant coach Dustin Ford "every day". He went on to say "I love everything about Illinois".

All of a sudden, Kigab is a pretty significant target for the Illini heading into this final stretch. At 6-foot-6, the Ontario product is long, a quality athlete and versatile with his skill set. Kigab can make plays on drives to the hoop, he rebounds well and he defends. The Illini love that he is a hard-nosed competitor, and he has some of the attributes that Illinois liked with Kipper Nichols.

Kigab cut his list to six earlier this month, and he has three official visits set up: Oregon (Sept. 10-12), Illinois (Sept. 16-18) and Cal (Oct. 7-9). The big key for Illinois is getting him to leave Oregon without committing. The Ducks program has been a magnet for Canadian talent, and they use that pedigree to bring in more players from north of the border. Kigab has been pretty high on them, and Dana Altman's staff has made him a priority.

But if he makes it to Champaign for his visit, the Illini will have their chance to make their pitch.

5. Jacob Epperson (4-star C, La Lumiere, Maribyrnong, AUS)


The 6-foot-11 Australian big man was a late-bloomer on the scene in this class, but after getting seen by college coaches in July, offers sprouted in a hurry. Groce watched Epperson at the NY2LA Summer Jam in Milwaukee, and he had an Illini offer before the weekend was over. A number of other programs jumped on board as well. Marquette, Texas, Purdue, Oklahoma, West Virginia and Utah are some other notable offers coming in the last six weeks.

Epperson has plenty of length and skill. He has good footwork and he moves pretty well for his size. He also has very good hands, soft touch around the basket and outstanding vision in the post. There's a good reason why he shot up to No. 58 in Scout.com's latest rankings.

The concern right now with Epperson is the fact that he has average athleticism, and he is extremely slender. But given time in the weight room, on the proper diet and overall seasoning at the next level, he is a solid bet to be an asset down the road.

Where will that be? That is the question that doesn't have much of an answer at this point. Given that his recruitment just started less than two months ago, don't be surprised if Epperson takes his time when it comes to feeling out programs and setting up visits. Epperson has transferred to La Lumiere for his senior season, and the Illini have strong ties there -- even though Tilmon's transfer out probably left some things to be smoothed over.

Illinois will continue to keep tabs on this one. Epperson could be an ideal developmental big man to slot behind Tilmon.


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