Jeremy Werner // Illini Inquirer

Werner Mailbag: March 31

Illini Inquirer publisher Jeremy Werner answers premium members' Illinois basketball and football questions

Why did all of the recruits except Tilmon publicly confirm their intention to stay committed to Illinois? It is standard, routine, and expected behavior

Internet silence from Tilmon deafening...any significance?

With Martin and Michael Porter Jr. coming after Tilmon... and no public reconfirmation from Tilmon...is he still solid to Illinois??

Do you think that Tilmon is not publicly claiming his continued commitment to Illinois because he's waiting to see what Mark Smith does?

I see we're a bit angsty about Mr. Tilmon around here. No, he has not tweeted, Instagram'd or Facebook'd a reaffirmation of his commitment to Illinois. Sure, I guess that leaves a little bit unknown. But Tilmon isn't that active on social media, and this is a new phenomenon in recruiting -- players needing to reaffirm commitments with a picture on social media. Of course, TIlmon certainly has seemed to enjoy the drama and discussion about his recruitment, so maybe he's just having a bit of fun seeing you guys freak out and Mizzou's fan base fawn over him.

Guys, I'm going to side with a guy who has been all over the Jeremiah Tilmon recruitment, our very own Derek Piper. Jeremiah told Derek he was committing to Illinois before any other reporter. Derek was there when Jeremiah sent out his commitment tweet. Jeremiah told Derek before his Singing Week presser that  he was staying. Derek has a bat phone to Jeremiah's mother.

After last weekend's meeting, Derek spoke with his sources, and he wrote this: "All is good, folks. Nothing has changed. And nothing will change. Book it."

Mizzou is going to keep trying, but Illinois kept Jamall Walker. Tilmon's mom has said all along that if Walker is at Illinois, Tilmon will play for Illinois.

I asked Derek again last night about Tilmon, and he said "Yeah nothing has really changed. Taking Mom at her word. It's Illinois."

Whether you choose to believe them is your choice. But Derek and mom have been on the money throughout this process. 

If you faced tilmon one on one, what would the end score be?

In a game to 11 with 1s and 2s and make-it-take-it? Ummmm... 11-0. I was the eighth man on my sophomore team in Class 4A. I'm 5-foot-9 with no jumper and poor athleticism. I set a great screen and run the offense well, though! Tilmon is a 6-foot-11 five-star prospect. No contest. Though, my brother is 6-foot-5 -- he's the freak in my average-height family -- and I D'd him up pretty well, so maybe I can prolong the game past five minutes.

What are the rules around coaching changes and requesting out of LOI? A lot of people continue to worry about JT. His mom says they're committed. Since we changed coaches can he change his mind at any point or are there time limits?

The national letter of intent is a written agreement between a university's athletic program and a student. Even with a coaching change, the university is not required to release a student from the NLOI. The penalty for not following through with the NLOI is losing a year of competition and sitting out one season. The student-athlete can petition for an appeal through the NLI Policy and Review Committee for a release, but it rarely gets to that level.

Most institutions release a player -- especially after a coaching change -- due to public relations reasons. Though, that school usually puts restrictions on the student-athlete. To answer your question, there is no timeline before that player enrolls.

Where does Mark Smith end up and why?

The Big Ten. Illinois entered the week as the leader, but Michigan State has come on strong and has a lot to sell: Izzo, competing for Big Ten titles and playing time on the wing. He also recently visited Ohio State, and Thad Matta has made him a priority but he enters the season on the hot seat. Kentucky may enter the fray with an offer next week, and that surely will be enticing. I'd put my money on Illinois or Michigan State.

Could Mark Smith potentially announce a verbal commitment prior to the signing period?

Could he? Sure. But there's really no reason to do it. The signing period starts in 12 days, and he should use those to visit his options and whittle down his list. No rush to do it beforehand.

Where are Mark Smiths last 2 visits and are the Illini eliminated if they are not one of the 2?

Michigan State likely is one of them. He just took unofficial visits to Ohio State, Butler and Kansas State. He's visited Illinois and Mizzou multiple times already. I would think Kentucky or Illinois likely would be his second official visit.

If Mark Smith commits to Illinois, who starts at point guard for us next season?

Te'Jon Lucas. A couple months ago I would have said Frazier, but Lucas brings experience and defensive tenacity that Brad Underwood will like. Smith certainly could start at the 2 or 3, and I hope he would.

I would like to see TeJon Lucas remain the starter at point guard since he is such a good passer. What do you think about Mark Smith playing the 3 position since he is 6' 5"?

In most college systems, the 2 and 3 positions are interchangeable -- and Underwood's system seems no different. He used a smaller lineup at Oklahoma State, and 6-foot-4 Thomas Walkup played the three -- and played it extremely well -- at Stephen F. Austin. Get the best players on the court, and Smith likely would be one of Illinois' best scoring options.

Do you think any OSU commits will ask out of their NLOI?

Michigan point guard Amauri Hardy was released from his NLOI yesterday. Illinois may show some interest if it misses on Mark Smith. Georgia, Georgia Tech, Toledo, Kent State and Eastern Michigan also are interested.

Zack Dawson reaffirmed his commitment to Oklahoma State this week.

Underwood's 1st recruit?

Someone in the Class of 2017: Mark Smith, a transfer big man or Hardy seem like the best bets.

Do you think that Underwood will look real hard into the transfer market or not?

Absolutely. Illinois needs some post depth, and if he can land a really good player on the transfer market, he should do it. Just learn from Groce and 1) don't wholesale the transfer approach; and 2) make sure the transfer is a good culture fit.

For arguments sake, assuming Smith is in fold, what will the Illini do with the final open scholarship for this year? Some options.... 1)Not fill it /give to walk-on for year?; 2) 5th year transfer (either a big or taller scoring wing); 3)JUCO or other transfer?; 4)Another Frosh (big or taller wing)

The first option is the worst option. It's a waste of a scholarship spot for a season. The only upside is adding a mid-year transfer, which is rare.

Adding a talented freshmen would be the best option. Underwood has a six-year contract. The focus should be on developing long-term talent and his culture. Build this thing the right way. His predecessor did not. A fifth-year transfer is the best short-term option -- help you win soon (with minimal investment) but open up a scholarship quickly. A JUCO or multi-year transfer has to be the right talent and the right culture fit.

Are there any players on the current roster thinking about transferring ??

Power-five players transfer when they're not happy with their situations, which usually centers around 1) the program they're at isn't close to winning; or 2) playing time. The players most frustrated with playing time are D.J. Williams and Aaron Jordan.

To Jordan's credit, he's been a great culture guy by all accounts. He shows up, works hard and does what he's asked. He just doesn't seem to have the talent to play a big role in the Big Ten. Some around him have previously looked into his available options. I think he could thrive in the Missouri Valley.  

Though he is just a sophomore. Williams left the team for a few days at the beginning of the spring semester. Those around him are not happy about his playing time. He has the athleticism and length to play at the high-major level, but he hasn't yet shown the improvement or consistency. Though in his defense, he also hasn't received the playing time with Malcolm Hill ahead of him and Kipper Nichols passing him on the depth chart. Anyone else would be a bit of a surprise at this point.

Does our W/L improve next year?

Assuming you mean basketball, I will say yes -- but not by much. Illinois loses its two best players from last season (Hill and Mav Morgan), but last year's team should've been three or four wins better in my opinion. Illinois adds some raw talent, but it will be young. But it vastly improved its head coach from an X's and O's perspective. Underwood took over a talented team at Oklahoma State, but his coaching turned them from a 12-20 team under Travis Ford to 20-12 last season. The Big Ten will be deep again with no nights off. Illinois is young. It likely will be bubblicious again, but I do think Underwood's coaching will make them more competitive on the road -- no more 25 points loss, please -- and more intimidating at home.

What is the strength of the reported tie of Bowen to LaLu coach Heirman? He has plenty of independent major offers. % chance we would get him if Heirman is hired as AC?

if we decide to hire Shane Heirman as an assistant coach do you think there is a greater than 50% chance Brian Bowen follows him here as well?

If Underwood is hiring Shane Heirman, he better be sure he's getting Brian Bowen. I like Shane. I think he can eventually be a good college assistant. But he hasn't coached college ball yet. Recruiting at Illinois is different than recruiting at La Lu. He's got a high ceiling, and he intrigues me. He had several Division I offers last year and already has some high-major offers this year. But Illinois would be taking a big chance. I wouldn't take that chance unless the downside is mitigated by landing Bowen and solidifying what would be one of the nation's top recruiting classes.

I think Mike Mennenga would be a good name to add to the new staff. Any chance he's the big name we've offered? From Rantoul, asst at UIC few years back. 

Though Mennenga is fro the area and has great affinity for the program, he has a great thing going with Dana Altman. It might not be the best career move for him at this point.

Has Illinois reached out to Brian Cook about a job on the support staff?

Not yet. But Brian has a lot of interest in hopping on Underwood's staff and understands he'd have to start as a support staffer. He just wants a chance. I think he'd be a great fit in Dee Brown's former role as mentor and alumni relations. Brian is one of the best players in program history, a central Illinois guy, former first-round pick and former NBA player. He could be a nice asset. These are the kind of roles where former Illini should get preferential treatment.

Will the new coaching staff concentrate their 2018 recruiting efforts on the same kids that the previous staff prioritized? If not, do you have any sense as to the players out there who might best fit the system the coaches want to implement at Illinois?

There are some obvious 2018 targets, starting with five-star Morgan Park point guard Ayo Dosunmu. Underwood needs to be all over him. He's the type of recruit that can change a program on the court and off the court (in terms of perception). Tim Finke didn't seem like a fit with John Groce's offense, but he should be a bigger priority for this staff. His athleticism, outside jumper and length would fit well in Underwood's  scheme. But Vanderbilt, Butler, Notre Dame and Oregon have done really well there, so Illinois would have some catching up to do. Other locals to watch are Simeon wing Talen Horton-Tucker and Whitney Young guard Xavier Castaneda.

Other than that, expect Underwood to focus on his 2018 targets once the 2017 class is in the books. He and his staff will hit the road this spring and summer. The Illini only have a few spots available in 2018, so he'll be selective. The past staff really didn't have many big-men targets in the 2018 class, so Underwood may need to search outside the Midwest for one.

How much did OSU give Evans to keep him?

I heard it was close to $500,000. It's basically a co-coach setup with Mike Boynton.

Coach Underwood calls you for suggestions to finish the coaching staff. What coaches do you suggest for him?

He knows these coaches a hell of a lot better than me, but I want guys who can get players. Ideally? Roger Powell would be the No.1 target. A former Illini with great Division I experience. But he probably wouldn't leave Bryce Drew so easily. If I were him, I'd ask for a lot too.

I love the idea of former Kentucky assistant Orlando Antigua. He was one of the best recruiters in the country under John Calipari. But he was fired midway through a five-year contract at USF due to an NCAA investigation into academic fraud. I don't know that he'd pass the Josh Whitman sniff test. Dennis Gates would be a home-run hire, but he loves it at Florida State.

I continue to hear Emmanuel Dildy and Chin Coleman as possibilities, though some in Chicago are pushing those names. Isaac Chew would make sense too, though he just got to Texas A&M. Heirman certainly is intriguing, much more so if Brian Bowen tells Underwood he'd follow him to Illinois.

I did hear that Illinois offered a really good assistant (not sure who) a sizable contract, so much that Underwood likely would've had to ask Whitman for a bigger staff pool. But that coach declined. This is a big weekend for Underwood as he meets potential candidates at the Final Four.

Why do my cankles hurt

Either your family has a history of thick ankles, you're too inactive or you're pregnant. So I would say 1) whaddyagonnado?; 2) get up and move around or 3) congrats!

who's the backup at the 5?

This requires a bit of projection, but for all of the players on scholarship this fall (including signees) what position do you see them best fitting? E.g. 1, 5, 4-5 (both positions but 4 first), 5-4, etc...

Just basing this off current roster. If Mark Smith is added, I'd  put him as a starter at the 3 or 2.

5 - Jeremiah Tilmon // Michael Finke OR Fifth-year transfer 

4 - Leron Black // Michael Finke OR Kipper Nichols

3 - Kipper Nichols // D.J. Williams // Javon Pickett

2 - Jalen Coleman-Lands // Trent Frazier OR Aaron Jordan // Da'Monte Williams (once returns to health, likely will move up)

1 - Te'Jon Lucas // Trent Frazier

Who is the leader in scoring, rebounding and assists next year? I am going with JCL, Black & Frazier

Scoring -- Jalen Coleman-Lands (too many opportunities; I'd hope he can get to 14-16 ppg)

Rebounding -- Leron Black (expecting 8-10 boards per game)

Assists -- Te'Jon Lucas

If there are two asst spots left and DOBO, would Heirman, Dennis Gates, w/Deon as DOBO put us in a good position w/Chicago, STL, and a few Nat'l recruits for the next 2 to 4 years

Deon Thomas will not be the director of basketball operations. That position will be filled by Joey Biggs, who had the role the past decade at Oklahoma State. The role is all about organizing and scheduling. Deon didn't love recruiting and got out of the business partly due to the intense schedule. I know he wants a role now, but it surprises me that his name comes up so often. UIC wasn't that upset that they parted ways. But Deon could be a good fit in Dee Brown's former role.

Heirman is unproven but has upside. Gates would be a home-run but he's very unlikely.

Why did Dee Brown have to walk away?

Personal reasons. I understand curiosity, but it's personal.

What kind of success does underwood need to have in first 5 years to stay off the hot seat?

We're already bringing this up? Give him time. Make NCAA Tournaments (next season might be iffy, folks) and eventually progress to contending for a Big Ten title. John Beilein didn't rebuild Michigan into a great Big Ten program overnight.  But he made a few NCAA Tournaments, got the players he wanted and eventual helped Michigan rise up the ranks. It'll take Underwood some time, though Illinois is set up for a quicker rise than Michigan.

Win the NIT or lose in the 1st round of the NCAA tourney? If you choose NIT, how far would you need to go in the tourney to change your mind?

Lose first round of NCAA Tournament. No question. The NIT is great for programs like Central Florida. Not Illinois.

IMG Academy has a couple of high major basketball recruits in the 2018 class, including two 5-star PFs in Emmitt Williams and Silvio De Sousa. Could / will Donnie Abraham be helpful to the basketball staff in developing a relationship there, or is that kind of cross-pollination just not how things work?

"That's not how this works. That's not how any of this works." Sure, a football staff can help a basketball staff during official visits -- like Lovie did when he talked with Trent Frazier -- but they are so caught up in their own worlds that there isn't a ton of interaction between the two.

Are there certain "factions" (like NWestern & Minny maybe) out there using the makeup of Lovie's staff to negative recruit against the Illini in-state -- more specifically the Chi-town burbs and downstate? What's the holdup on either naming or hiring a recruiting coordinator?

Negative recruiting happens all the time. I'm not sure Lovie's staff can be used against him. A lot of big names and NFL experience there. What can be used against Illinois is their lack of wins.

Great question. All is quiet on that front, but I was told last month that they may wait a few months to get the new guy in. I'm as curious as anyone as why they fired Sternquist. I haven't gotten a great answer, and no one will tell me what the next step is for that department. Illinois had a successful year with Sternquist at the helm under less-than-ideal circumstances (late start to the class). And now, Illinois finds itself losing some big in-state recruiting battles.

Now that the new car smell from Lovie Smith is gone, how are you feeling about him as a program leader? In-state credibility was supposed to go a long way, but so far we haven't seen much loyalty from the top 15 HS players.

Illinois is in great hands from a culture perspective. The players love being treated like professionals. Smith just needs better players. That's going to take time. Due to the roster he inherited, I really don't think we'll see what a Lovie Smith program looks like until 2019. In the meantime, it'll be fun to see some young talent develop and this staff's schemes emerge.

Why does everyone expect "loyalty" from in-state players? They go where they want to go and where they think they'll have success. Most of these kids grow up fans of programs that win. Illinois hasn't won much in their lifetimes. Lovie Smith's name gives Illinois a lot of credibility and helped the Illini land a top-35 class in February. But Illinois now needs to win games and improve its facilities -- but both might not happen until 2018-19. Northwestern, which is off to a blazing start with in-state prospects in 2018, is doing both.

When is it acceptable to start freaking out about no football commits? I know Lovie likes to take his time but it's April...

Some uneasiness is fair. Losing Devin O'Rourke, Quincy Patterson and Luke Ford really hurt. They were three of the top targets on the Illini board. That said, Ricky Smalling and Kendall Smith  were the first to give commitments to Lovie last year -- on April 27. Fans were fretting in August ... and then again in December. By February 1, Illinois signed a top-35 class. It's a long haul until Signing Day. Prospects will emerge, especially out of state, and this staff has earned a little bit of trust.

Who and when is the first 2018 football commit?

A quarterback, this spring.

I know we don't have many scholarships but shouldn't we have a couple of football recruits by now?

The staff would surely love a commitment from one of their top targets. But they're not going to push for a commitment just to get a commitment. This staff wants to be sure on prospects. They don't rush offers (see: Kendrick Green) and want to see these prospects up close before offering. Expect more action with the spring evaluation period starting in mid-April, followed by their camps in June.

Is the staff going after another QB ?

Aside from Coran Taylor, any other QB's in the 2018 class that you feel we have a legitimate shot at? Like Eleby, Holcombe or Littlejohn?

What is going on with coran Taylor? Is lovie waiting on grades to allow the commitment so as not to scare off other qb's in case coran comes up short? Seems like we have offered a lot of qb's already and I expected a coran commitment already considering his options and expressed love of Illini.

Illinois is in great position with Taylor. I just think Coran wants more offers, and I was told Lovie wants to see Coran throw up close this spring. And, yes, Coran needs to do some work on his academics. This was a big semester for him. He has time to get back on track though.

Illinois wants two quarterbacks in this class. They are one of the leaders for Eleby and recently offered Woodrow  "Trey" Lowe III.

Should I be worried that so few of the scout 300 football guys seem to truly be interested in Ilinois? Who's our first commit from that list?

I imagine you'll worry regardless. Illinois didn't land any Scout 300 players last year, but Verdis Brown has legitimate interest in the Illini. But Ohio State and Michigan loom large for him too. He's a litmus test recruit for Lovie. St. Louis prospects Trevor TroutRonnie Perkins and Michael Thompson all have interest in the Illini too. Would I bet on the Illini to win those? Not quite, but I didn't think they'd get Larry Boyd either. Plenty of good football players out there and still A LOT of time until Signing Day. Lovie, Thad Ward and Garrick McGee are intent on making a huge splash in St. Louis.

How much has northwestern's new facilities hurt us in recruiting this year?

Facilities are hurting the Illini. Whitman will take care of that in a few years.

Any updates on Dwayne Lawson?

He's progressing, but no additional word on when he'll arrive. Everyone's hopeful he'll arrive in June, but he might not get here until August.

You are the head coach of the Illini; you only get one point guard to lead your team the next four years: Tejon Lucas, Trent Frazier, Mark Smith, or Ayo Dosunmu. Who is your choice?

Great teams need more than one point guard. If I had to go two, I'd go with Ayo Dosunmu and Mark Smith. I'd love a roster with all four of them.

Soup or salad?

By taste? Cream of chicken or cream of broccoli soup. But I do enjoy salad with honey mustard dressing, and I usually try to go salad for health reasons.

When does the 5th year basketball transfer market usually happen ?

April and May. The transfer market will heat up in the coming weeks.

Any idea on where Groce, Ford and Parham will end up ?

Groce is a candidate for the Akron head coaching job, and he wants to remain a head coach. But Indiana also wants him as an assistant. He coached one season with Archie Miller on Thad Matta's staff, where Groce proved to be a great Big Ten assistant/recruiter. He's an Indiana native and recruits the Midwest pretty well. It'd certainly be odd to see him on the Indiana sideline, but he'd be a great hire for Miller.

Parham will find a spot. He has great ties in Chicago. His head coach just didn't help him enough up there. Dustin Ford is at a career crossroads if Groce takes an assistant job. I wonder if he might be best as a support staffer because he struggled as a power-five recruiter.

Is Hartlebs seat getting warmer ?

Warmer? Sure, simply because it was really cold two years ago after a historic season. Mike Thomas gave him an extension through 2020 worth $290,000 annually. That raise comes with raised expectations. The Illini were solid last year (28-23 overall, 12-12 Big Ten) in what most knew would be a step back from the year prior. This current team is (by all accounts) talented but very young. But a 6-16 start is disconcerting. There's a lot of time left in the season to turn things around, but this looks like another step back. Hartleb is pushing for stadium renovations -- and Illinois needs them if it truly wants to be a Big Ten power. But 2018 could be a big season for the program on the field.

Will Underwood keep their strength and conditioning coach who appeared to do a great job.

Word is that Adam Fletcher will be kept on Underwood's staff. That'd be a great call. Fletch is a beast and really, really good at his job. After a year in the program, the Illini were stronger, more athletic and basically injury-free.

Coach Underwood has praised the HS coaching in IL, will he be putting on coaching clinics for HS coaches, perhaps a way to develop relationships? I know Lovie Smith has done this for football, but I honestly don't know if Groce had done this(probably just my faulty memory). With all the talk about creating/developing relationships and what Simeon coach Robert Smith said in your podcast about the head coach being around and more active, I just recalled Lovie doing this and wondered about basketball.

Illinois has a basketball coaching clinic every fall. Seth Greenberg and Larry Brown were the guest speakers the previous two years.

Can you give your thoughts on Malcolm Hill and his shot with the NBA?

Malcolm Hill is good enough to get drafted, but teams usually prefer to draft foreign players who they can draft and stash. Roster spots are slim in the NBA and most teams would rather draft-and-stash a foreign player as an asset than spend a second-round pick on a college player it likely will cut. I said before the season that Hill needed to vastly improve his three-point shot to make it in the NBA. He improved from 31.4 percent to 35.8 percent, which might not be good enough. Malcolm has strength, skill (shooting, rebounding, passing) and work ethic. He doesn't have NBA length or athleticism at the three. I thought Brandon Paul was a better NBA prospect, but Malcolm will earn an opportunity. If he doesn't get drafted, he'll sign for a Summer League opportunity. Regardless, he'll make a nice living as a basketball player for the next decade.

Wrestlemania is Sunday. Percentage chance I Mar ends up where legends are made?

Isaiah is confident, but I'm not sure he has the personality/acting skills for the WWE. Now what about UFC? That's more up his alley. He may not be a perfect wrestler after all, but he's tenacious and loves to entertain.

Which one hurt/will hurt more? The Cliff hat fake, Jalen Brunson to Nova, Goodwin to SLU, or Mark Smith to the Spartans?

This didn't take me long: Brunson. If Brunson were here, Illinois would've made the last two NCAA Tournaments and John Groce would still be here. He's an ideal, four-year college point guard and simply a winner. Smith would be next on my list, slightly beating out Goodwin since you're saying Smith would stay in the Big Ten.

Jeremy, do you like Chocolate Chip Cookies?

Would you honestly subscribe to a site published by a guy who doesn't like chocolate chip cookies? Though you know what's better? The cookie dough. Mama Werner used to give my brother and I the egg beaters. We licked those clean.


Purple Pride Top Stories