Lead basketball reporter Derek Piper breaks down which way the Illini are trending with their top targets.
Illini head coach John Groce is in the midst of a crucial point in his 2017 class pursuit, as he looks to put the finishing touches on what could be a masterpiece.
Groce has already put checks on the checklist with many things he wanted to accomplish with this class. He has the home-run addition in Jeremiah Tilmon. He successfully landed a scoring lead guard to fit his system with Trent Frazier.
Groce also capitalized early on downstate talent with commitments from Da'Monte Williams and Javon Pickett. The focus extends outside of the state lines now, though, and the staff has been on the road visiting a handful of top targets.
The Illini want to hit another home run with Indianapolis five-star wing Kris Wilkes, who took an official visit two weekends ago. They're also looking in a familiar place in Indiana, as four-star Australian big man Jacob Epperson is now at La Lumiere.
Groce was at La Lumiere on Wednesday to watch Epperson during the Lakers combine. Illinois extended an offer to the 6-foot-11 big man in July, and they have him squarely on the radar.
Epperson is rather new to the recruiting process, but he is learning about Illinois.
"The education there is pretty good," Epperson told Scout.com on Wednesday. "They've got a pretty good basketball program too."
Epperson added that he will take an unofficial visit to Champaign on Monday.
"They say they like me as a player and what I have. I'll probably just find out a bit more when I go there for the unofficial -- what they want, what they see me doing and everything like that," Epperson said.
The Illini certainly want another big to go alongside Tilmon. There was a major development with four-star power forward Mayan Kiir on Wednesday.
Here is all the latest with Illinois' targets in the trending meter.
The Illini have been patiently waiting for this recruitment to hit the final stretch, and we are at that point. On Wednesday, Kiir locked in an official visit
to Champaign on Oct. 7-9. He also has official visits set to N.C. State (Sept. 30) and VCU (Oct. 22), as Victory Rock Prep (Fla.) head coach Loren Jackson told IlliniInquirer.com. Jackson said that LSU and Mississippi State have been actively involved recently, and that at this point, they would likely be the final two official visits if Kiir wants to take all five. Illini assistant coach Dustin Ford
was down to see Kiir on Wednesday, and he was there with Groce last week as well. Illinois has put a great deal of effort in this one and Kiir has taken notice. Ultimately, they need to fully sell him on early playing time. VCU is a program that can offer that as more of a guarantee, even with three-star big man Marcus Santos-Silva
committing to VCU on Wednesday. The fact is that Illinois is one of the prime contenders here, and the buzz has been that they feel as good as anyone heading into visits. This is far from a done deal, though.
There's no question that Illinois impressed Wilkes and his family on their official visit two weekends ago. Wilkes' father gave a rave review
to IlliniInquirer.com about the 48-hour trip. The Illini threw everything they had at Wilkes, and in turn, they're still in the picture. It's not a stretch to say they've elevated into the top three. Wilkes will head to UCLA this weekend, but there has been recent skepticism about him actually going that far for college. Indiana has been at the top as the team to beat. Wilkes' father said his son is a "real Hoosier". But Wilkes wants to see what's real with Indiana. As Illinois helped to put in his head, it's about what a program can show and prove instead of just say. That has Wilkes with an open mind, and Illinois has turned up the heat with the opportunity. Groce and assistant coach Jamall Walker
were in to see him at open gym this week. They were there last week too, and they'd like to do an in-home visit before this one is done. Xavier continues to be a major player too, and they will be even more dangerous if this one nears their official visit in late October. But for now, Illinois is in it and trending up -- even if some breaks have to go their way to ultimately jump up to first.
It was a rather quiet visit for four-star small forward Abu Kigab
last weekend, but Illinois did well. Kigab told IlliniInquirer.com
that he really bonded with Big Ten Player of the Year candidate Malcolm Hill
. He is very close with Ford, he loves the opportunity to fill Hill's shoes, and he was very impressed by what the Illini showed him with player development. Kigab entered his visit slate with Oregon being the favorite. A source told IlliniInquirer.com that Illinois believes they have closed the gap there -- making this far from an easy decision. Groce and Ford are expected to go out to California for a follow-up visit with Kigab possibly as soon as this weekend. As it stands right now, it is expected that Kigab will take his official visit to Cal on Oct. 7 -- but the Bears will likely fall behind the Ducks and Illini. Safe money is on Oregon with their pedigree of landing Canadian products, but Illinois furthered their position last weekend and they're in the thick of this one.
There are a laundry list of programs that want a spot in this race -- so many that Epperson can't remember them all off the top of his head. Illinois is one of them, and their ties at La Lumiere could help them. They may already have with Epperson taking a visit to Champaign this upcoming Monday. He told Scout.com that he will hit Purdue on the way back as well. There are a few factors at play here. As expected, Epperson will likely be a late signee since his recruitment just started two months ago. He wants to take his time to really get to know the coaching staffs and schools. Epperson has family in the Indianapolis and Louisville areas, and staying in the Midwest seems to be attractive to him. That could help the Illini, but they won't be the only Big Ten program playing on that advantage. Getting him on campus is a step in the right direction.
New month, same story for standout guard Alonzo Verge. Great talent, but no positive certainty surrounding his situation -- at least as it relates to playing major college basketball next season.