USA Today // Mike Granse

Werner: John Groce left Brad Underwood with a better inheritance than he received

The Brad Underwood era is underway at Illinois. But what did John Groce leave behind for him?

CHAMPAIGN - Bruce Weber left his replacement enough talent to make an NCAA Tournament in his first season.

But John Groce never coached an NCAA Tournament game after that 2012-13 season. Of course, Groce is mostly to blame for that. He didn't recruit well enough or coach well enough in his final four seasons at Illinois, which is why he has been job hunting for the past two weeks.

Yet while Weber left Groce with a strong senior class -- led by Brandon PaulD.J. Richardson and Tyler Griffey -- that helped lead the Illini to its last NCAA Tournament win (over Colorado in 2013), Groce inherited a roster with one junior (Joe Bertrand), no freshmen and a six-man sophomore class that featured only two players who eventually completed their collegiate careers at Illinois (Nnanna Egwu and Tracy Abrams). That unbalanced, thin roster encouraged Groce to lean heavy on transfers, an ultimately failed experiment.

Groce's replacement also inherits a program that needs a lot of work. But Brad Underwood actually takes over a better roster situation.

Illinois loses five scholarship seniors, including their top three leading scorers. That hurts. Especially the loss of All-Big Ten Second Team selection and No. 3 Illini career scorer Malcolm Hill. The Illini also lose the team leader (Tracy Abrams) and the team's second most consistent player during the last 14 months (Maverick Morgan).

But five of the next eight players in the rotation should return, including a junior class with three nice pieces and two sophomores who should be solid-to-good contributors for the next three seasons. Oh, and Groce leaves behind what currently ranks as the No. 9 recruiting class in the country.

After missing four straight NCAA Tournaments, it seemed a bit odd when Groce said he left the Illini program in a better place than he found it. But the roster he left certainly looks more balanced and appealing than the one he was given.

Roster in flux

Of course, that's all tentative. A lot can change during the next few weeks.

Underwood must lock down the 2017 signing class. Top-100 point guard Trent Frazier already reaffirmed his commitment. Frazier, who must add strength, will give Underwood a dynamic, quick guard who can fill it up beyond the arc.

Underwood will visit five-star center Jeremiah Tilmon on Friday. The 6-foot-11 center, who can run the court, protect the rim and collapse a defense, would give Underwood the most talented big man he's ever had as a head coach. Four-star guard DaMonte Williams and three-star guard Javon Pickett have been quiet since the Illini hired Underwood, but neither is expected to make a big early impact especially after Williams suffered a torn ACL at the beginning of his senior season. The new Illini coach also could add to the class. Illinois Mr. Basketball Mark Smith is looking to whittle down his list before making a decision next month. Illinois has hosted him for a few visits and certainly will be on his short list, but Underwood must quickly familiarize himself with the Smith family. Selling his high-octane offense to a combo guard who can fill it up certainly would help. Smith has the potential to be a do-it-all lead guard who can finish at the rim, get to the free throw line, stroke it from beyond the arc. He also can learn to use his strength and athleticism to pester opponents on defense.

Underwood also could look to add some of the prospects he signed at Oklahoma State. After all, he recruited them specifically for his system. Of particular interest is Miami point guard Zack Dawson, who is big, athletic and explosive.

Exports and imports also seem likely.

Underwood certainly will meet with the current Illini players soon and discuss their roles and options moving forward. It's inevitable that his plans and some players' goals won't line up. D.J. Williams and Aaron Jordan couldn't carve out roles with the coach who recruited them. While Jordan is a solid program guy, he has limited upside. While Williams shows flashes, he has never shown consistency or vast improvement at the prep or collegiate level. Their futures at Illinois seem uncertain.

Underwood surely will be active on the transfer market as well. If Oklahoma State junior Jeffrey Carroll -- who raised his scoring average from 8.2 points as a sophomore to 17.5 points in his first season under Underwood -- graduates (earning grad transfer eligibility) this spring, he would be a coup and fill the large void left by Hill.

Throughout college basketball, signed prospects will ask for release of their national letters of intent due to coaching changes. The transfer market will again be robust. Illinois will be involved in both, meaning that (combined with graduations) more than half the roster could be turned over.

Holdovers who fit

But Groce left some pieces Underwood can use in his system.

Rising sophomore point guard Te'Jon Lucas (4.8 points, 3.1 assists) may not top out as an elite Big Ten point guard, but he could be a pretty good one. He's a great distributor with a high IQ who can break down defenses and create for others. He's not a go-to scorer or shooter but is a double-digit threat. Underwood may like his defense the most. The new Illini coach wants to get into people and make them uncomfortable. Lucas surprised as a defender this year and did a great job of using his quickness to keep defenders in front of him. With added strength, he could become one of the best on-ball defenders in the Big Ten. Rising junior guard Jalen Coleman-Lands (8.0 points) had a mildly disappointing sophomore season. Another shortened offseason certainly didn't help, but his game didn't grow much beyond his three-point shooting, which dipped to 36.5 percent from 42.2 percent as a freshman. He's still too one-dimensional (72.5 percent of his shot attempts were threes) and must work on his off-the-dribble attack (runners, pull-up jumpers and contested layups). He must add more strength to help finish around the rim (after converting just 44.4% of his field goals at the rim). He also must show more drive and focus on defense because he has the length and quickness to be much better on that end. But Coleman-Lands is an elite shooter for a coach who runs an offense that gets shooters open and encourages them to shoot -- quickly and a lot. Coleman-Lands should take a big scoring leap next season.

Rising junior forward Leron Black (8.1 points, 6.3 rebounds) also was expected to produce more as a sophomore. He fell in love with his mid-range and (later in the season) three-point shot -- only 15.0 percent of his field goal attempts were at the rim, and he struggled to finish around the rim. He also still struggles on defense and fouls too much. But he is an elite rebounder. Underwood's teams are elite offensive rebounding teams. It's a part of his identity. If Underwood can get Black bought into constantly playing hard and crashing the glass, it's not crazy to think he could average a double-double next season, especially given Oklahoma State's huge strides on the offensive glass this season (read about that here). He just needs to get more explosive and finish better at the rim. Underwood's crash-the-offensive-glass should get him some easy looks at the rim.

Rising sophomore forward Kipper Nichols (4.9 points, 2.9 rebounds) seems to have the Underwood mentality. Physical and tenacious. His athleticism and length should make him a pest in Underwood's attacking defense and on the glass. Nichols isn't a go-to-scorer, but he did surprise as a three-point shooter this past season (12-for-27, 44.4 percent) and could get more open looks on some back cuts in Underwood's scheme.

Rising junior forward/center Michael Finke (6.9 points, 4.2 rebounds) may benefit most from the coaching change. Underwood uses a lot of high-post entry in his offense, utilizing a versatile post who initiates the offense at the elbow. The 6-foot-10, 230-pound Finke is a plus passer and shooter (52.7 percent overall, 40.9 percent from three) who in Underwood's offense can find the back-door cutters, set the ball screen and pick and pop. Finke also is a very underrated offensive rebounder, which Underwood will like. He's a negative on defense. But Finke's offensive skill set can be maximized in Underwood's scheme. He may be a double-digit scorer next season.

Underwood needs to add more, of course, because Groce left holes that leave this roster very vulnerable in the Big Ten. The Illini need more athleticism. They need more length (though Tilmon certainly would help). They need more physicality on defense. The Illini need a go-to guy.

But Groce left Underwood with a better, younger and more balanced roster than he inherited from Weber. Now it's up to Underwood to get more out of it than Groce ever did.

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