Piper mailbag: Jan. 25

Lead basketball reporter Derek Piper answers the hoops and recruiting questions of our Illini Inquirer subscribers.

Do you think we can be successful without having elite downstate players to recruit? I can't remember too many Illini teams that were led by out of state or CPL players besides Simeon. To me it seems as if coaching success at Illinois is completely dependent on downstate talent. I'm not sure if any coach can win if the state has a drought of producing downstate talent. Thoughts?

Is the downstate talent pool very important to the success of Illinois? Yes. We all know the success in the early 2000s was built with a baseline of downstate guys. Brian Cook, Frank Williams, Sergio McClain, Marcus Griffin.. All from downstate. Cory Bradford was pretty important to those teams, and he was from Memphis. But that next wave – the best talent Illinois has had since the Flyin’ Illini – wasn’t based on downstate. Dee Brown, Luther Head, James Augustine, Roger Powell… All from up north. Deron Williams from down in Texas.

Yes, those were Bill Self’s recruits. And no, we haven’t seen consistent recruiting success at the level Self was able to provide since he left. The 2017 class is a prime example of how much it helps to have high-level talent downstate. And if you look at the projected roster next year, you’d see two out-of-state point guards (Frazier and Lucas). A downstate center (Tilmon). An out-of-state starting power forward (Black), who is backed up by a Champaign native (Finke). An out-of-state starting shooting guard (Coleman-Lands). And your starting three could very well be an out-of-state forward (Nichols). As a whole, D.J. Williams and Aaron Jordan would be your only Chicago guys on the roster. And those are the top two candidates to transfer out if you had to pick. But yes, I understand you’re bringing back pieces of a team that isn’t winning.

So what does it all mean? The 2017 class is the first time we’ve had two downstate Illinois players in the Scout.com top 100 since the 2003 class with Rich McBride and Brian Randle. And those two players both went to Illinois and didn’t exactly bring them decorated success. But I think downstate talent is very important. Tilmon is crucial. Mark Smith sitting down there is important. Promising frontcourt players like Francis Okoro and E.J. Liddell are important spotted up in downstate Illinois in the 2019 class.

But my overall thought is that you want the state to have talent depth, even if that means it’s up in Chicago. There are advantages to having them downstate because there is typically a higher likelihood of loyalty -- and overall getability for different reasons. But I don’t think this program’s success has to be predicated on having ELITE downstate talent. If we name the ‘elite’ downstate prospects we’ve seen since the 2002 class: Andre Iguodala, Shaun Livingston, Meyers Leonard and Jeremiah Tilmon. That’s in 16 years.

Throwing in some good downstate talent into the equation helps. But you can get good players from a variety of places, and it’s mostly about developing a program identity, building around that and putting players in a good position to succeed with coaching and development.

Can Illinois afford to fire John Groce and lose out on our 2017 recruits?

Losing recruits like Tilmon and Frazier would hurt. Would drop the floor of the 2017-18 season rather significantly, as well as the season after that. But that’s without knowing who the prospective next coach would be able to bring in. And we can’t be 100 percent certain that Tilmon and Frazier would both be out of the picture with a new coach. But you’d certainly be rolling the dice there.

Can Illinois afford not to fire John Groce?

If you’re not coming close to making the NCAA tournament, I don’t believe so.

What could Groce have done (or Thomas or Whitman) to improve Groce's game prep and coaching skills relative to the conference? Hire an experienced game coach as an assistant? Consult secretly with someone (like Bo Ryan)?

Groce consulted with Larry Brown over the summer when Brown came to town for his coaching clinic. He said they watched hours of film together and bounced ideas back and forth. So it’s not like Groce hasn’t had the opportunity to listen to outside voices.

Plenty of Illini fans have pointed to the assistant aspect. Ultimately, the head man does what he wants to do in the grand scheme of his system, culture, practice setup, etc. The assistants just follow his lead there. So if Groce is set on doing things a certain way, that’s the way they’re going to be done. I will say that assistants are in charge of game scouting. They have responsibilities as it relates to player develop. And of course, recruiting. So there’s plenty of ways for them to make an impact.

Groce brought in Darren Hertz from Florida to be the special assistant to the head coach, and Hertz worked under Billy Donovan. Groce talked about how Hertz was able to bring some new ideas and different ways of thinking on certain things. How much has that really changed things? The guys in that office would have a better answer. And Groce has stayed the same with his top three assistants.

Not sure if you can answer this or not but how big of a hindrance have the assistant coaches been for the last two staffs?  Since Chris Lowry took over at SIU after Weber's first year, we have gone 13 seasons without an assistant coach taking a head coaching job at any level.  To me that is a very poor reflection of the assistant coaches we've had.  Especially if we go after Cuonzo, I would hope we have the proper funds to bring in big time assistants just like we did for Lovie's staff. 

I think it’s a fair question. When do assistants leave and take head jobs? When your program is winning at a pretty high level consistently and you’re recruiting really well. Illinois hasn’t done that since Weber’s first few years. Have the assistants contributed to that? Anyone on staff has to take responsibility.

Why hasn't groce hired a veteran bench coach? Is his and the coaches words getting through to the players?

Loyal to his guys.

Has Groce lost this team? This team lacks pride for sure. Getting kicked in the teeth every road game would have killed less talented players in the past and they would have done something to change it. L. Johnson, Battle, Bardo would have taken this personally and changed it.

This players continue to say all the right things. But talk is cheap. I agree with you that past players/teams have shown more fight. To them, recent performances would be unacceptable and they probably wouldn’t sit there and say everything is okay.

Mark Smith when?

Is Mark smith an Illini at the end of this? How does the season play out?

How much is this state- of-flux impacting Smith's decision to pull trigger?

There are a couple things impacting Smith’s decision and where Illinois sits. Tom Crean just watched him on Tuesday night. Chris Collins was in last week. I believe John Groce went and saw him on Sunday. I think Smith schedules some visits soon.

More in my most recent update HERE.

Derek, why is this team not able to put it together? Is it truly "pride" as Malcolm puts it, or is this team deficient in too many areas?

The second one.

Cuonzo Martin's name keeps getting thrown around as the most likely candidate, or most realistically wanted candidate. There is no question he can recruit at a high level, but do you think he can coach at a similar level? If the answer is no, my concern is that we end up like Washington as Lorenzo Romar is an excellent recruiter, yet they are a crap team.

Martin is a proven recruiter. Think he could get really good talent at Illinois. His ability to coach up that kind of talent, at this point in his career, has not matched that ability to get it.

How soon can we announce that Cuonzo Martin is the next Illini basketball Head Coach?

Please hold.

If Martin is known as great recruiter, but not- so-great coach (which sounds eerily like the tag on Groce when he came in) why would we replace JG with CM - especially when JG finally has our best recruiting class in years lined up for 2017, and a change could jeopardize that?

The thinking on that is Martin could potentially keep Tilmon, Da’Monte and Javon. Would have a chance to keep Trent. But could also bring Charlie Moore with him. Multiple sources have said he would. And Martin has won more high-profile recruitments than Groce. So some believe he can make waves in Chicago in a way Groce can’t, while also being a big-time presence in the St. Louis area.

I will say, though, that getting Martin doesn’t automatically ensure Tilmon. It has been passed through the grapevine that Martin would have a high level of confidence in getting him. But at this point in time, I’d still be skeptical. I’ve been very in-tuned with Tilmon’s camp. The same feel is being put out. If no Jamall…

Cuonzo and Jeremiah’s mom do not know each other personally. How important is Mom’s input? Extremely important. I’m not saying Cuonzo wouldn’t have a decent (or slightly better) shot, and I know he knows other people in that area. But it would potentially be a battle without Walker in the equation.

Is the Cuonzo Martin talk pure speculation? Or is there some substance behind it?

There is substance in terms of interest in the job, and what seems like interest in him.

Which trait takes precedence for you? Having an elite recruiting head coach, or a solid x's and o's head coach?

Interesting question. But give me the ELITE talent if you’re counting the other aspects as equal in each scenario. X’s and O’s are important. But players make plays.

I'm too numb to ask a question, I'll just enjoy the answers when you put out the article.

For anyone in need of Novocaine…

Derek, what is your dream gig in the industry?

Good question. I have big dreams. Love what I’m doing now. As for the future, really just focused on working hard and following the path God has for me.

What is the likelihood that Whitman has already decided to fire Groce at the end of the year, given your own personal knowledge of how Whitman thinks and operates:

a) not at all likely
b) very likely

C) Somewhere in between. Whitman isn’t going to have the book closed on Groce with 11 Big Ten games left. But he also knows that this team is not currently on track to meet his expectations.

What is going on in our recruits minds as these watch some of these non-competitive games lately? Aside from maybe concern about this staff not making it, is there any concern about their time at Illinois playing out in a similar fashion, even if they do?

They’re concerned about the staff, obviously. That’s who they bought into with their future. And I think that’s the majority of it. Are they concerned that they will underachieve since that’s what Illinois has done in recent years? Probably not. Recruits think more about the future. They’d tell you they’ll be the ones to change that.

Thoughts on Groce's in-game interactions with assistants. How open is he to their input? It seems like he argues/yells at Ford quite a bit, is this pretty normal? How much does he delegate?

Honestly, it’s hard to know exactly what’s going on without being in that huddle. Groce and Ford interact quite a bit, but I think it’s normal. Most of the time when I see Groce animated with him is when he’s frustrated with a player or a call. Ford operates the in-game substitution pattern, which is preplanned with him and Groce. Walker and Parham do a lot of individual coaching when it comes to in-game.

Should Kenny Payne be a HC candidate?

Good resume. Great recruiter. Probably not the right guy for Illinois because he hasn’t been a head coach.

How big of a factor do you think losing Nunn made? Most assumed JCL would basically make-up for his production, but with his regression do you think the senior version of the Hill/Nunn combo would make a major difference? I know we have an older roster but it's not like any of these players played together the past three years. IMO they play like a roster of individual players instead of a unit, which I feel is going to happen when 3 starters are returning from major injuries. The last good team had the senior combo of Paul and DJ, I wonder if Hill and Nunn would of significally impacted this season?

Nunn would have given Illinois another scorer with some athleticism. Can create his own shot and make the three-ball. Not a guy who put a lot into the defensive end of the floor. Not a leader. Would make the Illini more talented. Probably would give them another consistent offensive producer, which they don’t have many of right now. But as a team, I don’t think his presence would fix enough to make them a top-third Big Ten team. A tournament team? That’s hard to answer because this team has offensive talent. Their problems are deeper than that.

Is he a significant loss, though? Definitely.

Derek, Whitman calls you tomorrow at 230pm. He tells you he has fired Groce. He wants your choice for the next Illini basketball coach. With tears in your eyes and a suddenly dry throat, you respond. What is that answer? The people need to know.

I like the scene-setters. Let’s continue…

Derek, knowing the magnitude of his answer, paused for a second. For one third of that second, he wondered why he was about to cry. For another third, he pondered if blue Gatorade was in the fridge to help his throat. And for the last third, he remembered that his answer has been said to be a long shot even by those 'in the know'. Yet, this particular coach has never talked to Josh Whitman and seen the offer sheet on the table.

So Derek said it anyway. “Archie Miller”.

If JG gets the axe this year, what is probability (high, medium, low) of keeping each of our incoming group?

Depends on the hire. But just as a general bar of expectation…

Pickett: High

Da’Monte: Pretty high

Trent: Medium-low

Tilmon: VERY dependent on Jamall Walker. With Jamall, very high. Without Jamall, pretty low.

Do you see Whitman having a sit-down with recruits/ families before deciding to pull trigger (especially if he doesn't have solid alternative lined up)?

If a move was going to be made, I would expect conversations to be had shortly before. But not until then.

What are you overall thoughts on John Groce's base offensive and defensive scheme? Is it the right scheme for the players on the roster? Do you think we'd be better off deploying a motion or a dribble-drive? Defensively is this pack line scheme really effective?

I don’t have a problem with the scheme of the ball-screen offense. Although, it’s an offense that puts a lot on the point guard to make plays in the form of breaking down defenses, making the right read, hitting shots, getting to the basket and finding open teammates. And point guard has been Illinois’ most notable lacking position since Groce has been here.

You’d also like to have a mobile five to run the screen ‘n roll. Morgan moves decently well for this purpose. Thorne does not. I like the concept of the horns set. I think that lines up pretty well with what Illinois has personnel-wise in the frontcourt. I think that’s an example of making a variation to what you have. It can create some high-low action, and there are some different things you can do with it.

To me, the ball-screen is fine. I think there are some other issues that may not relate to the scheme. You don’t see a lot of off-ball movement from guards on a number of possessions. And you don’t see Illinois executing counters for different things. The two biggest examples this year are zone defense and post trap. That’s less about base scheme and more about adjustments.

Defensively, I don’t blame those who want to see some more athletic lineups have the ability to run some press variations. When something isn’t working, you want to try different things. I know Groce doesn’t even love playing zone, but he feels he has to at times because Illinois can’t guard man-to-man. There’s not really a complicated scheme to the man defense. The Illini just aren’t a good defensive team.

Is there any word on how Thorne and Tate (and to a lesser extent, DJ) are taking the reduction in minutes? I remember seeing Thorne on camera looking particularly somber in the first game he didn't play in.

Guys want to play. Groce said on Tuesday that Thorne and Tate have been playing really hard in practice. They understand they only have so many games left. Can’t be easy to know that and not play the minutes they desire.

Do you sense that Groce and the staff feel any urgency to make the tourney?  From reading his postgame comments it seems like he isn't worried about the outcome of the season.  Do you feel that he knows not making the tournament with this team will be the end of his regime here?

What Groce says publicly and what he feels internally are different things. Yes, they feel urgency. A lot of it.

1)  Do you believe that this is an NCAA caliber roster that is poorly coached, or an overrated roster that is poorly coached?

I had some pretty high expectations for this team in the offseason. I thought the roster itself was surely at an NCAA tournament level. Now, I see what everyone sees: A lot of flaws. With continuity and health, it was natural to expect this to be a better defensive team. Thought the depth and versatility of the frontcourt would give most teams problems. Thought players like JCL, Black, Finke, Williams and Jordan would take steps forward.

But this is a bad defensive team. They have depth in numbers but not production. Their frontcourt is given more problems than they dish out. Thorne has been bad, and I thought he’d be one of the top three or four centers in the Big Ten when healthy. And in Big Ten play, you’re not really sitting there saying ‘man, (insert sophomore’s name) has really gotten better’.

There are a number of people who believe a different coach would have this group as a tournament team. On paper, I think the roster has enough individual talent to be in the tournament. But when you factor in growth, consistency and assembly as a unit, they’re not there. Personally, I think it’s fair to point to how this team is being coached and managed. But the roster has turned out to be overrated based on what I thought, and a number of others. Even those who saw this team squeaking in as a middle-of-the-pack Big Ten team.

2)  I think that a BB coaching search will be a much "leakier" process than football.  The NCAA tournament is basically a job fair.  You've got waiting periods, etc.  It will be much more difficult to have everything in place before announcing a firing, which, barring a miracle, should occur.  What do you think?

I agree that you’re not going to announce a firing the day after Illinois gets bounced from the Big Ten tournament and expect to make your hiring announcement on the Monday after the Selection Show. Most programs want coaches who are coaching in the NCAA tournament, and they will not be available until their team is finished playing.

I think you can gauge interest before then, though. And you can have offers ready to be made official.

3)  With respect to (2) above, do you believe in miracles?

I do believe in miracles.

4)  Can our staff be this inept, Is this really happening?  Oh wait, Donald Trump will be President and the Cubs won the World Series.  No need to answer.


5)  Should I force my daughter to go to Nebraska over Illinois because it will be $17,500 less per year?  They get better players out of Illinois than Illinois, why not students too?

$17,500 is no small chunk of change. I stayed in-state and still paying off student loans. But Illinois is a great school. You raised her as an Illinois fan, didn’t you? You knew this was coming. 

6)  Are we really the second worst team in the Big 10?  I'd feel so much better if we were just the third or fourth worst team in the Big 10.

Would you? They’re third worst right now. So.. Feel better.

Our players play soft in tight games. Is that because the players are soft? Because they haven't developed toughness? Is that something a coach can do? How?

You are what your habits are. If you are continuously soft, you are soft. Why is this team soft? Groce and the players will talk about mindset, pride, etc. And we circle back to why don’t they don’t have these things. It falls on the leaders of the team and the coaching staff. But each man has to be accountable for themselves.

This may already out there somewhere, but it would be interesting to know which assistant coach has game prep for each game? Or does it really matter at this point?

The rotation is Ford, Walker and then Parham. Parham has Iowa on Wednesday. You can backtrack or look ahead based on that.

In your opinion, how much pressure does Whitman likely feel from the university administration and/or the Board of Trustees to make sure the new head coach is "African American" (assuming for this moment that Groce will be fired)?

I think the pressure is completely on making sure a new coach would be the best choice.

Can we make tourney in your opinion? If not, and there is a change...chances Walker stays on with new coach? 

Do you think the next head coach will keep walker?

Can Illinois make the tournament? Technically, they still can. Based on what I’ve seen, I don’t think they will. As for Walker, I think there is a chance he stays. Might come at the recommendation of Whitman. But if one of Whitman’s top choices says he’ll take the job but he wants his own staff, I would expect you grant that wish.

What "pro based" coaches do you think are or should be on JW's short list?

Fred Hoiberg and Monty Williams.

Do you think there have been any back channel contacts already with respect to a coaching change?

In a preliminary form, yes.

If the answer to the previous question is no, at what point do you think those contacts will/should begin?


Which former Illini would be a good addition to a future staff? I've thought of the Rev and Sean Harrington. Others?

Dee Brown, but most likely further down the road.

Do you think it is important to have a Chicago connected coach on the staff?


While floating around names for a new basketball coach if Groce is replaced the Drew boys came up. As a Valpo fan I've always routed for Scott Drew and Baylor from afar. The friend I was talking to was not a fan of the idea, and cited some shady recruiting from Scott in the past. I'd never heard of anything along these lines and thought the Drew family kept it pretty clean as far as recruiting. My question...have you ever heard or seen anything to indicate shady recruiting at Baylor? What is Scott Drew's reputation in the industry? 

There was a poll done by CBS back in 2012 which talked to 100 college coaches. One of the questions asked which head coach was the biggest cheater in the sport. John Calipari was first with 36 percent of the vote. Scott Drew was second at 34 percent.

That speaks to the reputation part. Here’s the thing: Recruiting can be pretty dirty. Not always is, but it is in a lot of cases. Different levels of dirty. In 2012, the NCAA found that Baylor men’s and women’s basketball made hundreds of impermissible calls and texts to recruits. Those broke the rules, but that’s not that bad of an infraction. One naturally thinks if they got caught for that, what else are they doing? And when you’re not a blue-blood and you’re pulling in five-stars, people are going to assume. That’s just how it goes.

Drew had three straight classes between 2010 and 2012 when he signed a top-10 player in the country. Personally, I don’t have any direct knowledge of the situation.

Rank your top 5 coaching candidates in terms of dream scenario and realistic list.

Anyone can dream…

1. Chris Mack

2. Sean Miller

3. Tony Bennett

4. Gregg Marshall

5. Archie Miller

Realistic? Funny because I don’t think anyone would have had Lovie Smith on their realistic board for the football hire. How about realistic in terms of at least listening to a pitch?

1. Archie Miller (Still possible he might listen, right?)

2. Buzz Williams

3. Fred Hoiberg

4. Greg McDermott

5. Bryce Drew

Realistic in terms of a pretty decent chance of getting them? We'll know more as things move along but...

1. Counzo Martin

2. Ben Jacobson

3. Monty Williams

4. Kevin Keattes

5. Dan Muller

If there were a coaching change for next year, which player on this year's squad do you think it would benefit the most?

Hard to know without knowing the coach and his system.

If there is a coaching change and you're the new coach or Whitman, who is the first player you call (active or recruit) to calm their nerves and convince them not to transfer/de-commit? If the answer is Tilmon, who is the second?

Answer would be Tilmon. Second choice would be Trent Frazier.

Top 3 sports movies? Bull Durham, Hoop Dreams, and Major League for me. Although the decade disaster that is Illinois basketball could potentially win drama of the year and move up the list.

Friday Night Lights, Field of Dreams and Space Jam.

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