USA Today // Mike Granse

Piper mailbag: Sept. 30

Lead basketball reporter Derek Piper answers all of your Illini hoops and recruiting questions.

I'd like to see your preseason prediction for minutes per player per position broken down by pre-B1G and B1G parts of the season (i.e. without Kipper and with Kipper). 1's being Abrams, Lucas, Tate. 2's being JCL, AJ, etc.


Abrams: 25
Tate: 9
Lucas: 6

JCL: 30
Jordan: 6
Hill: 2
Austin: 2

Hill: 32
Williams: 8

Black: 20
Finke: 20

Thorne: 23
Morgan: 17


Abrams: 25
Lucas: 9
Tate: 6

JCL: 30
Nichols: 7
Jordan: 3

Hill: 32
Nichols: 5
Williams: 3

Black: 20
Finke: 20

Thorne: 23
Morgan: 17

Illinois has a better chance at landing Dosunmu or Ramey? And if you had to place money on lands 1 or lands neither, what side are you taking?

I think the odds are pretty close. Illinois has gotten both on campus twice. Ayo has been twice in the last four months. I think heavy hitters get involved with both. Right now, I’d say the odds are slightly higher with Dosunmu. I know, he’s a Morgan Park point guard. He plays with the Mac Irvin Fire. That puts doubt in Illinois fans’ heads right off the bat.

It certainly won’t be easy. I’m not saying it’s going to happen. But Ayo likes Illinois quite a bit. I think Groce and his staff have done very well with their sell so far. This is a family-oriented recruitment, which I think bodes well for them. I think this season is important in terms of showing some resurgence and getting Ayo down for a game in a great home atmosphere.

We’re talking about two five-star, potential McDonald’s All-American point guards. We’ve seen how tough landing one of two has been in the past. Safe money is probably on neither, but Illinois will be in these battles.

Where do we stand with the 2018 /2019 class. Any chance any of them make early commitments? If so who?

Dosunmu and Ramey are the top priorities in 2018. Darius Garland is another five-star point guard that they’re after as well, but odds are better with the other two. Tim Finke and Carte’Are Gordon are two other priority targets. Finke is, of course, the hometown product and he’s extremely familiar with Illinois. He’s around the team all the time. But it’s going to come down to fit with him. Illinois has wings, and there may be more immediate playing time elsewhere. Notre Dame and Vanderbilt have made some good strides early on.

Illinois is in there with Gordon. They made his top 11 back in August. But he’s going to be a tough one to land. If the Illini don’t get Mayan Kiir or Jacob Epperson, Gordon will become even a bigger priority.

The 2018 class will have limited scholarships, and thus, a select number of targets. As for 2019, that will be a big class given that you’re replacing all the sophomores on the current roster. The Illini feel good about the in-state talent that lies out there in 2019. You have two talented point guards up in Chicago: Markese Jacobs and Marquise Walker. Both visited over the summer and got offers. Walker is one that could commit early. It will be interesting to see how Illinois plays it. Jacobs may have the higher ceiling with his athleticism. He already has an offer from Kansas, though.

Illinois got in early with Belleville West forward EJ Liddell. He will be a pretty big priority, and he has a chance to be really good. The best prospect in the state for that class is Normal West big man Francis Okoro. He is the guy you want to follow Jeremiah Tilmon. Okoro isn’t from Illinois, so don’t expect any in-state loyalty. But having him close to Champaign is a positive, and he plays with the St. Louis Eagles program. Illinois also likes in-state wings Perry Cowan and Malik Hall.

I'm sure you've heard some crazy stories of kids flipping schools at the last minute or some things coaches have done to try to flip recruits. Without identifying players or schools, can you share any stories that might show us more of how ridiculous basketball recruiting can be?

You do hear some pretty crazy stories in this business. I’ve heard about ‘packages’ sent to high school coaches. I’ve heard about early-morning flights for college coaches to meet with a player before he goes to school on Signing Day. And you hear about bidding wars. I’ll give you one, and no, it doesn’t come from a recruitment I covered.

A race comes down to two schools. One 'package' offers up $150,000 a few days before Signing Day. The kid tells that staff he’s in, but he’ll wait until Signing Day to announce. The transaction is made. The staff is all happy. They just got a blue-chip talent. They get a call the day before Signing Day saying the price has been doubled: Pay the other half or he’s going elsewhere. That program says they can’t/won’t go any higher. Another program steals him for $300,000 and the other program is out the $150,000. They threaten to blow their whistle, but they can’t because they’d be doing it on themselves as well.

This is a story I heard pretty early on when I first started covering recruiting. I think this one has some unique parts to it. But there are other situations where you can change the names and dollar figures and essentially have the same story. It’s out there, and they aren’t usually the best kept secrets.

Let’s say we don't get Wilkes, Kigab, Epperson or Kiir. How does the staff feel going forward in 2017 (in terms of talent and depth)? How would their 2018 recruiting game plan change with the extra potential scholarships?

I think they will feel they desperately need a five on the transfer market. I don’t think they will be too worried about the wing. Overall, I’m sure they’ll be happy with what they have lined up. They filled needs at center and point guard with Jeremiah Tilmon and Trent Frazier. They like the potential of Da’Monte Williams and Javon Pickett. Put those players with guys like Jalen Coleman-Lands, Leron Black, Michael Finke, etc. and you have some talent heading into 2017-18.

As I mentioned above, Carte’Are Gordon will become an even bigger priority if the Illini don’t get Kiir or Epperson. They have a pretty select number of targets in that class right now. If they don’t get Wilkes or Kigab, maybe that allows them to better sell opportunity to Tim Finke. I could see them expanding their horizons a little bit if there’s more offers to work with, such as offering Simeon wing Talen Horton-Tucker.

Any quick drop outs from other schools with mid-year transfer potential ala Kipper? I imagine he was a unique case though.

Kipper’s case was pretty unique. I know four-star forward Troy Baxter got his release from South Florida last month and ended up signing with UNLV. Although, he is said to be eligible for the upcoming season. I’m assuming that means he never officially enrolled, as Kipper did at Tulane.

How would you define the general sort of offense that this coming year's team will run, given the big changes in personnel (i.e. with Thorne, Tracy; matured Black, JCL, Finke, Malcolm, etc; no more Nunn, far less Tate)?

Do you expect Groce to change his style of play this year?

I don’t think you see much change in terms of philosophy or playing style. You’re going to see a ball-screen offense with the picks usually being set by the fours (Black and Finke). That will present some pick ‘n pop opportunities with Finke. You’re going to see him around the perimeter quite a bit. The fives will stay down low. Obviously, much of the offense is going to run through Malcolm. The Illini will try to get him the rock as much as possible, especially in that mid-range area with some space.

But a big part of the offense comes down to Tracy Abrams being able to facilitate. You look for him to read the ball-screen and make good decisions. He’ll look to drive the gaps and take advantage of defensive rotation. That’s when you’ll see JCL spot up from three. Black can slide out for a baseline jumper. Tracy has looked good in open gyms with being able to drive and make things happen.

You’ll see the post featured quite a bit too. We saw that at the beginning of last year, and even down the stretch as Maverick Morgan became a reliable scoring option. When Mike Thorne has a guy on his back, his teammates want to get him the ball. That will be a pretty major focus of the offense, especially because Thorne is a pretty good passer off the block.

We’ve seen a lot of quick-trigger offense with this team in the past. Groce wants his guys to push in transition, and he also doesn’t want them to be afraid to take shots. But at the same time, Tracy isn’t a run-and-gun point guard. He’s going to control the pace, and I think you want to see more patience in the halfcourt because you have so many weapons. Make the defense work and force rotation with ball movement and reversals. I don’t think that’s really a style change, it’s more about offensive maturity as a unit. This group should have some of that.

Same question about the defense. What should we anticipate?

Defensively, I think Groce will want to play man-to-man as much as possible. He wants his guys to pressure the ball on the perimeter. He’ll look for Tracy to set the tone there. The Illini need to be better at defending the two and three spot. Kipper Nichols can help that instantly when he’s able to play. But with other guys, it really comes down to being able to stop dribble penetration. That was a glaring weakness for this team last year. As was guarding the three-point line and cleaning the defensive glass.

Improvements simply have to be made, and it comes down to grit and execution. Don’t take possessions off. Illinois has the depth to make sure that is the case. They have physically developed during the offseason to ‘body up’ at the defensive end. As I said, it starts on the perimeter. This team doesn’t have shot-blockers down low. They don’t have fives that are mobile enough to switch off to a guard, keep him in front and recover back when he looks back to the big.

I’m not expecting this to be a great defensive team. But I expect them to be tougher and more athletic.

I can't remember if you've given your opinion on how the Big Ten will shake out this year, but what do you think the rankings will be come conference tournament time?

Wisconsin (14-4)
Indiana (13-5)
Michigan State (13-5)
Purdue (13-5)
Illinois (11-7)
Ohio State (11-7)
Michigan (10-8)
Maryland (10-8)
Northwestern (8-10)
Penn State (7-11)
Iowa (6-12)
Minnesota (4-14)
Rutgers (3-15)
Nebraska (3-15)

I'd like your prediction as to conference and overall record before the BTT. Do you think Groce will make the Tourney?

I’m looking at an 11-7 conference record. I think they start 3-4 through those first seven games. Important to win those home games against Ohio State, Michigan and Maryland – assuming you drop a few on the road with Maryland, Indiana, Purdue and Michigan as your first road tests. Of course, this is college basketball and we probably won’t see straight chalk. I can see them stealing one on the road somewhere but losing one at home during that stretch.

Afterwards, they have a pretty favorable schedule. Need to take care of Iowa, Northwestern and Penn State. The Illini play all three of those teams twice. Those are games they SHOULD win. Playing at Iowa is always tough and Peter Jok is really good, but they lost their other four starters from last year. Northwestern is always pesky, and I’ll say Illinois loses up in Evanston. Penn State has a nice infusion of young talent, but they’re not there yet. I’m not going to predict a win at home against Michigan State or Wisconsin, but I will say Illinois wins eight of their last 11 to close the regular season.

I’m going to say they go 11-2 in nonconference play. Tough four-game stretch with West Virginia, Temple/Florida State, N.C. State and then VCU. BYU is a good team too, and the Illini haven’t played well recently in those battles at the United Center. Probably lose two or three of those games. I’m going to say two. So that puts them at 22-9 overall heading into the Big Ten tournament, and they will be dancing after that.

Do you think the staff sold Kris Wilkes that he could come to Illinois and take Malcom’s spot at the 3? Do you think he is one and done? Are we just getting our hopes up?!!!! Hahaha

Yeah, I think the staff did very well with that aspect of their sell. It’s attractive to not only have that opportunity but to replace someone of that caliber. I think Kris definitely has the ability to be a one-and-done. He needs to get more consistent with his outside jumper, but he’s very capable with that area of his game. Adding strength is another major aspect. But with his last high school season, a full offseason on a college campus and then a freshman year, I can see him being ready for the draft.

Are Illinois fans just getting their hopes up? That’s the nature of recruiting. You want to land a big-time recruit? You’ve got to get in the box and take your swing. The staff is doing that. They’ve made considerable strides since Kris came out with his top five. Everyone connected to this recruitment will tell you that. I think this upcoming Indiana visit will dictate a lot in terms of where this one goes. Word has been that the competition has gotten closer to the home-state Hoosiers over the last few weeks, and Illinois is definitely a significant part of that.

How'd Epperson’s visit go?

Heard it went well. Will try to gather some more details for you. But we’re in the infancy stages of this recruitment. Epperson knows very little about the landscape of college basketball and programs in particular. It’s going to take some time for him to do his homework and get on some campuses. It was certainly a positive that Illinois got him in town early. He got to know more about the team, coaches and the school.

Like with football, there is usually a game on the schedule that gives you a sense of what you have in your team. Do you see any non-conference games that will gives that glimpse for basketball? Or will we need to get into B1G play before we have a real good sense?

Definitely. The four-game stretch between Nov. 24 and Dec. 3 is going to provide plenty of answers on this team. After the first five regular season games, Illinois has West Virginia, Temple/Florida State, N.C. State and VCU. Three of those four will be away from Champaign with the first two being in Brooklyn and the last being in Miami.

This won’t be the same West Virginia team that has won at least 25 games in back-to-back seasons. The Mountaineers have to replace two All-Big 12 selections, who were their top scorers. Devin Williams is a huge loss. The 6-foot-9 big man averaged 13.3 points and 9.5 rebounds per game. He put 31 and 10 on Kansas in the Big 12 tournament final. West Virginia also lost Jonathon Holton, who averaged 8.9 points and 7.6 rebounds per game. He and Williams combined for more than 41 percent of West Virginia’s rebounding output.

So the Mountaineers will look to some unproven options in their frontcourt – big opportunity for the Illini. But with a Bob Huggins team, you know they will be tough, athletic and they will make you play out of your comfort zone with a pressure-packed defense. West Virginia was second in the country in turnover percentage last season – forcing turnovers on 25 percent of their opponents’ possessions. That will be a challenge, but Illinois has more talent on paper.

If they get by West Virginia, they’ll face a pretty tough Florida State team. The Seminoles return future NBA wing Dwayne Bacon, who had 15.8 points and 5.8 rebounds as a freshman last year. He is joined in the backcourt by former Illini recruit Xavier Rathan-Mayes, who can flat out score. He’s played North Carolina twice in his career, and he gave them 35 points in one game and 30 in the other. He’s a playmaker too.

And I haven’t even mentioned Diaper Dandy forward Jonathan Isaac, who comes in as the No. 5 freshman in the country – per the rankings. Isaac is a 6-foot-9 combo forward, who has NBA lottery pick written all over him after this season. Florida State has two talented freshman ball-handlers coming in as well in Trent Forrest and C.J. Walker. This is a team loaded with talent and athleticism. They won’t shoot the three-ball well, but if they improve on offensive execution/structure from last season (really held them back), they’ll be dangerous.

Then, you have N.C. State at home in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge. The Wolfpack were pretty underwhelming last year outside of standout guard Cat Barber. But Mark Gottfried has N.C. State fans excited with a freshman class that ranked No. 6 overall in the country. That is spearheaded by five-star point guard Dennis Smith Jr., who is an unbelievable talent with his physical skills and overall game. Draft Express has him slotted as the No. 2 pick in the 2017 NBA Draft. Need to see for yourself?

N.C. State also has 5-star, 7-foot center Omer Yurtseven from Turkey. He is projected as a first-round pick in next year’s NBA Draft as well. Yurtseven is mobile, offensively skilled and he can step outside the paint with his jumper. But the knocks on him are that he lacks strength and he’s not a great defender. That will present a contrast of styles with him and Mike Thorne going at it.

Beyond that, N.C. State has some other talented pieces. Abdul-Malik Abu (12.9 ppg & 8.8 rpg last year) is an explosive and physical four-man. The Wolfpack have talent on the wing too with Maverick Rowan and Terry Henderson. Freshman combo guard Markell Johnson is also uber-athletic. Many in ACC country think the sky is the limit for this team. They’ll be one of the most talented teams Illinois plays all season. One positive is that the young Wolfpack will be on the road in a hostile environment.

Lastly, you have VCU. A program that has won eight NCAA tournament games since 2011. Illinois has won three post-2005. Like West Virginia, VCU loves to dictate the style of play and tempo with their pressure and pace from baseline to baseline. The Rams won 25 games in their first year under head coach Will Wade, but they do have holes from last year’s team – losing three of their top five scorers.

But VCU still has some key veterans on their roster in JeQuan Lewis and Mo Alie-Cox. Lewis is a lightning-quick point guard, who can be a nightmare to guard. He averaged 11.3 points and 5.1 assists per game last year, while shooting 41.5 percent from deep. These two games will be your measuring stick for Tracy Abrams and what Illinois has at point guard. Meanwhile, Alie-Cox reminds me of a shorter Ronnie Turiaf back at Gonzaga. High motor. Physical. Built like an ox. He can score in the paint, rebound, and at 6-foot-7, he had 68 blocked shots last year.

Long story short, this stretch is going to be quite challenging, and it will be great for this time to test itself and have a chance to register some quality wins on the resume.

If there were a mid-year transfer, what would the staff be looking for? Like this summer, they were looking for Kendrick Nunn's replacement.

I’m sure they’d be looking for a big, especially if they can’t land Mayan Kiir. They need to get another five, although they may prefer a fifth-year transfer at the end of the season with immediate eligibility. It really depends on who is on the market. Won’t take a guy just because a spot is open.

Disappointing (but understandable) to see Illinois, as a Nike school, being left out of the PK80. Any rumors about where Illinois may be spending the holidays in 2017? Cancun or Vegas would be help me get over the snub pretty quickly.

I haven’t heard just yet. Sounds like Illinois has a pretty good idea of where they’ll be but have to get the contract worked out. I’ll keep you posted. I know it won't be the Maui.

What is Groce's theme for this year? Ten toes in,TNT, ETC.

I’m sure we will find out at Illini basketball media day next week.

After Kipper, who do expect to be the biggest surprise contributor?

I wouldn’t call him a “surprise contributor”, but I think Leron Black will surprise some people. I think he’s an easy one to forget when you’re talking about big contributors on this roster. He’s going to remind some of why he was a top-50 get for John Groce, and just how good he can be when healthy and after some post-freshman seasoning.

Leron has looked good in open gyms. He’s moving very well. He’s scrappy and always seems to come down with a few boards that he has no business getting. He’s also been confident and efficient with his mid-range jumper. I expect him to have a good year.

I've never been to a tournament myself but does Groce ever send a coach to see the tournaments at DACC in Danville?

Haven't heard about them being over there.

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