USA Today // Mike Granse

Piper mailbag: Dec. 14

Lead basketball reporter Derek Piper answers your Illini hoops and recruiting questions in his latest mailbag.

This teams needs to finish the nonconference with 2 more wins, and win (blank) conference games to make the tourney.

10 and a Big Ten tournament game. That would put the Illini at 21 wins overall. Most people typically assume that 20 wins or more means an NCAA tournament berth. Well, that’s not always the case. In fact, who you beat carries far more value than how many games you’ve won.

Texas Tech was placed in the 8-9 game last year with just 18 total wins. Michigan had 22 wins and they were in a play-in game. Ohio State had 20 wins, including 11 conference wins, and they went to the NIT. The Buckeyes had a number of bad losses in the nonconference, and they didn’t possess enough signature wins outside of Kentucky. Meanwhile, Texas Tech had February wins against Iowa State, Baylor and Oklahoma.

It’s tough to put an exact number here for the Illini. I think it depends who they beat. Most of their chances for signature conference wins are at the beginning of the schedule. Let’s say they only win two of the first seven. I think they might need 11 conference wins and then a Big Ten tourney win. Another factor will be watching how N.C. State, VCU and BYU fare. Do they hurt you or help you? Does Winthrop turn out to be a tourney team?

Not an easy science to calculate. I still think Illinois is capable of winning 11 conference games with the way their schedule is set up, and that would surely be good enough to go dancing.

How much of a role to you expect Nichols to play when he becomes eligible?  I know pre-season reports were pretty promising for him.  Do you expect he'll be eased in or does the staff think he'll be ready to contribute right away?

Can Kipper Nichols be a shutdown defender? It seems like we don’t have anybody who can be a lockdown defender Jeremy and I just gave our evaluations on Kipper and his potential impact. I think he will be eased into his role. On this winning streak, Groce has gotten a better grasp of his rotations. Kipper is going to get some limited opportunities and it’s up to him to see what he can do with them. If Finke continues to struggle, I think that opens the door a little bit more.

This staff fully anticipates Kipper being an impact defender. Just not right away. He can defend one-on-one with his raw athleticism, strength and motor. But defending becomes more complicated in a game setting with positioning, rotations, etc. All of a sudden, it is more complicated than ‘don't let this guy past you’. That’s why it’s going to take some time for Kipper to really unleash his ability at that end.

You seem like a giant next to tall are you guys?

DP: 6 feet, 2.5 inches

JW: Keon Johnson

After John Groce gets fired the day after Christmas, can Jaylon Tate's scholarship be revoked?


Looking at the statistics, why is Tate getting more playing time over Lucas? I don't get it and I think Groce is making a BIG mistake...

Lucas is more talented. We can all agree on that. He played very well vs. Florida State. He was pretty good again vs. N.C. State, which is why Tate didn’t play at all in the second half. Against VCU, Lucas didn’t look comfortable. He had an early turnover and didn’t see much of the floor after that.

Tate and Te’Jon were pretty equal in their overall playing time against IUPUI. Te’Jon played eight minutes in the first half, but only three in the second half. Tate played just two minutes in the first half with two turnovers, but he played 10 minutes in the second half.

I think that shows the trust factor. Lucas made an early mistake against VCU and barely played afterwards. Tate made mistakes against IUPUI early, but he got the benefit of the doubt. Neither were great that game. Tate was -1 in the plus/minus and Lucas was -8.

Why did Tate get 20 minutes against Central Michigan? I think he played decently well with 5 assists, four rebounds and a steal with just two turns. He was +16 on the game. Of course, it was easy to be in the plus category against a team that played no defense. So I understand Tate getting a good amount of run in that game. As for Lucas not playing at all, I don’t get that.

Does all of the negativity around Jaylon Tate's play extend beyond this board?  If so, has Groce ever answered these questions of his amount of playing time?  Clearly there is a disconnect between what the coaches sees in him and what others do - has Coach ever said "I play him because of "X-Y-Z"" or is he just pulling the Coach's prerogative card and saying that as long as they're the coaches they don't need to respond to this?

Yes. Groce will often say things like: ‘I thought Jaylon was connected. He knows his role and executes within that. We trust in what he’s doing.’ That’s the kind of answer you can expect. Does it answer your question to your satisfaction? Maybe not. It’s his team, and he can play it as he sees fit. And he’ll also give you the answers he wants to give.

I think it really boils down to trust and steadiness. Groce knows what he’s getting with Tate. He trusts that he will make fewer mistakes. He thinks Tate is a better defender than Lucas. Tate played 54 combined minutes against Keon Johnson (Winthrop) and Marcus Keene (Central Michigan). Lucas didn’t take his warmup off.

Was Lucas not playing in a 20 point win really about matchups or was there potentially something else going on?

I think Tate playing significant minutes over him was about who they wanted on the court defensively against another super-talented scoring point guard with a lot of quicks. But Groce had opportunities to get Lucas in the game late with a big cushion. He could have put him in for the 31 seconds he gave to Clayton Jones. Wouldn’t be out of the question to think that Groce was trying to use it as a motivation tactic, or something beyond a matchup, with the game shaping up the way it did.

How many questions do you get a day about backup PG minutes?

I lost count.

With so many defensive issues inside, do you think Groce will play more zone moving forward? Agree it's more difficult to box out, but hopefully the other team won't get as many easy buckets at the rim.

I think you will see this team play a good amount of zone going forward. It helps them with their less-athletic bigs, and it can be good against teams that want to exploit you off the dribble. But there are a handful of teams in the Big Ten that shoot it pretty well from deep, which could force Illinois’ hand to play more man. And seeing more similar-sized frontcourts will make it easier to play man. But zone has its benefits, for sure.

Are there Illini Inquirer groupies? If so, are they all middle-aged, balding men?


What is the strangest interaction that you've ever had with a fan? If there is one that sticks out.

Wouldn’t characterize my fan interactions as strange. Always appreciate the opportunity to meet people and talk hoops. Haven’t done any selfies, autographs or had any screaming girls ask me to marry them. Not yet, at least.

We all know about Epperson and Mark Smith as players that the staff is recruiting (tracking in Smith's case?) for 2017, are there any other names that we should be specifically aware of?

Sure you’ve heard about Taylor Bruninga from Illini Bluff. Illinois is at least paying attention to what he’s doing, and he’s putting up big-time numbers. But he’s doing it against some squads that probably couldn’t beat me and four Inquirer groupies. Don’t think Illinois bites the bait there.

Outside of that, nothing else there at the moment.

Who do you see taking most of the scoring load into next year?

First and foremost, I think you look to Leron and JCL. With the way Leron’s jumper has developed, you’ll want him taking double-digit shots. Fully expect him to extend that range to the three-point line next year. Maybe he has a Nigel Hayes-like junior year with 15-plus points on more than 12 shots per game. Leron is resembling Hayes quite a bit right now.

Coleman-Lands should really come into his own as a junior. He’ll be your best scoring threat on the perimeter. And he’ll have another offseason of developing his game off the dribble and working on getting his own shot.

After that, you’re looking for significant scoring contributions from Michael Finke, Jeremiah Tilmon, Trent Frazier and others.

How much do Groce and Lovie interact? What's their work relationship like?

Those are two very busy guys. I’m guessing they don’t interact all that often, but they are supportive of each other.

Who's the best player to interview this year?

I’ve got to give it to Malcolm. Can give you some well-thought answers on the game. Keeps it real. And he’s a funny guy if you can pull it out of him.

Chances with Epperson?

Still a ways to go in this recruitment. Illinois has done a good job to build an early relationship. They’ve had him on campus twice. Purdue has hosted him. That has been it, as of a few weeks ago. But as Epperson told me, he’s getting interest from more places than he can count.

He would prefer to stay in the Midwest. His parents are supposed to be moving back to the States this month. I think his recruitment gets a little more serious after that. Going to be tough with so many programs needing a big guy and there’s very few high-major quality bigs left in this class.

I would say the Illini have a decent shot right now. The connection to La Lu helps. Having him on campus early helps. But it’s still fairly early.

In 2018, what are priorities with only 2 scholarships? I think a big man has to be one.

Top-level point, big man and a wing. They’ll take their shots at Ayo Dosunmu and Courtney Ramey. They could use another big if they don’t add one late in this class. But there isn’t really a clear option for them in 2018 right now. And then you have Tim Finke, and maybe Talen Horton-Tucker – if he gets an offer.

Where is the recruitment of Ayo at? Have seen rumors that he wants to be an Illini badly but not sure how accurate those are at this time.

Scoop > Rumors

Yes, Ayo and his family like Illinois a lot. They’ve enjoyed their visits down to Champaign. They really like the staff. Really like the campus. Groce and Parham have made him feel like priority No. 1. That’s pretty big. But there’s a lot of time left in this recruitment, which is taking a backseat to his high school season. There will be plenty of coaches that roll through to see him play during the season, and they’ll be waiting for him in the spring as well.

I think it’s only a matter of time until the big boys come to play. But right now, I think Illinois has recruited him better than anybody. Saying Ayo is sold on the Illini already is premature, though.

With Whitman at the helm, if a coaching change is made, why do you think guys like S. Drew, Marshall and some of the other top guys wouldn't still be interested? Who are some legitimate names you would have at top of your list?

For guys like Scott Drew, Greg Marshall, Chris Mack, etc. why would you leave? Marshall is making three million per year at Wichita State. And for a lot of these guys, they can have the same level of success at where they are now. Mack has Xavier operating at a much higher level of success than Illinois. Baylor is a very consistent program. What about a guy like Archie Miller? Well, he doesn’t have to rush out of Dayton and it seems he’s going to continue to wait for the perfect fit. I’m not saying Illinois wouldn’t be a fit, but he still seems like he’d be a long shot.

There are certain challenges about the Illinois job that haven’t necessarily gone away with Whitman now at the helm. Yes, he brings stability and what has been good leadership in a short time. Yes, Illinois’ upgraded arena has been a bonus. But you still have the challenge of battling it out in Chicago, facing high expectations from the fan base, etc.

In this hypothetical scenario, I think you’d put Cuonzo Martin at the top of the list.

Does your gf realize how important you are in regards to Illinois basketball?

Haha… She certainly understands the job description.

With Harry Froling announcing he's transferring, do the Illini get involved again?

With the limited amount of big man options, I would expect them to at least check in on Froling. There was a good amount of mutual interest the first time around. But you have to remember that Froling is leaving SMU – based on what he’s said – because he wants a bigger role. He was the first big guy off the bench for them. Can Illinois give him more than that with Leron, Jeremiah and Finke in that frontcourt?

What are the key steps in SLU's 4-step recruiting plan?

You’ll know when my book comes out.

Who is our next bball commit? Who is the biggest competition for Finke and Ayo?

If I had to pick one, my best guess right now would be Edwardsville combo guard Mark Smith. Of course, that is dependent on Illinois extending an offer. But I know they like him quite a bit. And the interest is very much reciprocated.

The biggest competition right now for Finke is Vanderbilt, Oregon and Notre Dame. For Ayo, I would say it’s whatever blue blood decides they want in this race down the line. We can pencil in Kansas for now.

How is Francis Okoro playing so far this year and has Illinois been talking to him recently?

He hasn’t been dominant, but he’s had some good moments. He had 15 points, 11 boards and four blocks in a win against Centennial earlier this month. Last Friday, he had 10 points, 10 rebounds and three blocks against Bloomington. He doesn’t have great pieces around him, and he is still raw with his offensive game. But the athleticism and ability are evident.

Illinois can’t initiate contact with him directly until next summer. But I know they’ve been in contact with his coach.

Will they be .500 in the Big Ten?

Yes. Still sticking with slightly better.

Who will back up JT at the 5 next year?

At this moment, I’d say a fifth-year transfer or Finke.

Would you revise your preseason big ten standing predictions at this point?

Sure. Here were my preseason standings…

Michigan State
Ohio State
Penn State

Revised version…

Michigan State
Ohio State
Penn State

Top 3 players on next year's team

Black, Coleman-Lands and Tilmon.

Why do JG-coached teams start so slow? Season and most games? Can you decipher the substitution patterns? It seems like a player gets hot then the next stoppage they are going to the bench.

Can’t put my finger on the answer to your first question. Sometimes, it seems like the other team is the one dictating the style of play and Illinois is adapting to that. Sometimes, they don't have the necessary intensity and need a wake-up call. Sometimes, you just miss shots. Slow starts can be for a variety of reasons.

As for substitutions, they generally have a pre-scripted plan for how they want their rotations to set up. Of course, you adjust with foul trouble, etc. But yes, I have noticed that players have gotten in a grove and then they’ve gone to the bench because that was the plan. Don’t necessarily love that.

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