Defections from Jeremiah Tilmon and Javon Pickett will force Brad Underwood to reshape the Illinois basketball roster immediately. That's scary given that the national signing period starts Wednesday and Underwood's staff isn't yet complete. That also seems like an opportunity given that John Groce's rosters missed four straight NCAA Tournaments. With change comes opportunity. Underwood now can add players who better fit what he wants in his system and on his roster. Of course, his prep options are limited. But the transfer options are bountiful.
Pickett's defection certainly qualifies as bad optics. Illinois looks like it may go 0-fer on a once-in-a-lifetime crop of talent in Metro East. That hurts. But Pickett, who had no other power-five offers when he committed to Illinois in January 2016, hurts the least. Tough-nosed and ultra-productive guard Jordan Goodwin, a potential culture-changer, hurt more. Five-star center Jeremiah Tilmon's defection stung more, especially given the boost in perception and boost in post production he would've provided. Illinois Mr. Basketball Mark Smith, who visited Michigan State this weekend and received an offer from Kentucky last week, may end up the best of the bunch. Pickett is a very productive prep player who could develop into a nice complementary piece at Illinois. But he doesn't have Kentucky, Michigan State, Missouri and Kansas banging down his door. Illinois likely won't find a good replacement for Tilmon during the next few weeks. It certainly has the chance to find a better fit than Pickett.
Still, Jamall Walker was kept in part to keep together the 2017 class and help with St. Louis-area recruiting. Losing Tilmon and Pickett and losing on Smith would be a really bad look. Walker is a good Midwest recruiter. He landed Leron Black out of Memphis and Jalen Coleman-Lands out of Indianapolis. He's done a lot of groundwork on potential 2019 Mr. Basketball E.J. Liddell out of Belleville West. But this obviously isn't the start he and Underwood envisioned for their business relationship.
Back to Mark Smith. Have Illinois fans ever rooted so hard for a Michigan State star to pass on the draft and return to school?
Trent Frazier could underachieve at Illinois and still likely be a fan favorite. His loyalty and enthusiasm are what you want in recruits -- not that looking at other options after a coaching change is ridiculous. Oh, and given his skill set and production, I don't see Frazier underachieving at Illinois, especially under Underwood's tutelage.
Again, a bit of advice for Da'Monte Williams: focus on executing the offense and getting into people defensively. The shots will find you in this offense, but using that strong, athletic frame to pester people on defense will get you on the court.
Only nine scholarships are spoken for for the 2017-18 season -- and that's assuming no transfers out. So Underwood has the chance to add at least four players during the next few weeks. My preference: one fifth-year transfer post, one transfer wing, one freshman post and one freshman guard/forward. And if a fifth spot opens (which I would guess is likely), I'll take another lead guard. Hey, can't have enough of them after the great Illini point guard drought the last dozen years. Underwood's staff has a lot of work to do and little time to do it.
Carlton Bragg sure is tantalizing. Illinois hasn't had enough players with his type of length and athleticism. The 6-foot-9 forward can help protect the rim. He's a strong rebounder. He's an efficient scorer, who can finish well at the rim and stretch it out to the mid-range at a decent clip (34.8 percent on two-point jumpers). There's little question he would be an impact player at Illinois. But off-the-court distractions, Underwood must be certain Bragg is the type of person he wants to bring into his program, especially one who will sit a year to play two seasons. Groce brought in transfers who detracted from the culture he wanted to build, so much so that Groce was still reeling from it in his fifth season.
Francesco Badocchi is tantalizing as well. The Shawnee (Kan.) Bishop Miege prospect has the bounce and defensive presence Illinois hasn't had since ... Brian Randle? While Randle may have underachieved based on his ranking, he would have been a great complementary player on a better team (like if he wouldn't have punched a wall before the 2004-05 season). With no other power-five offers and with Underwood stressing a defense that stresses opponents, Badocchi seems like a pretty good fit.
Pittsburgh graduate transfer Cameron Johnson is 6-foot-8, averaged 11.9 points, shot 41.5 percent from three and has two years of eligibility remaining. "Sign me up" ... is what every program in the country is saying, reportedly including Kentucky, Arizona, Texas, Ohio State and ... basically everybody.
Back to Mark Smith. Because he's the No. 1 target. He's good. Really good. He'd play a top role immediately at Illinois. Land him and losing Tilmon and Pickett may feel like a fair trade -- or maybe even a win.
Plenty of other names are out there. For the dreamers hoping to quickly forget Tilmon, five-star big men and top-10 overall prospects Mohamad Bamba and Brandon McCoy are still available. Top-50 point guard Tremont Waters (former Georgetown signee) and top-100 forward Jordan Tucker are available, but also hot commodities. Then there are the late risers, like Badocchi, who may find more suitors as power-five programs run out of options. We will quickly get a measure of just how good Underwood, Walker, Orlando Antigua and the assistant-to-be-named-later are at pursuit and evaluation.
Groce inherited a better Year One roster. He had Brandon Paul and D.J. Richardson for a season. But Underwood still inherits a better long-term situation with several solid, multi-year pieces, including juniors Jalen Coleman-Lands, Michael Finke and Leron Black; sophomores Te'Jon Lucas and Kipper Nichols; and the two freshmen; Frazier and Williams. He just needs to add more length and athleticism. Oh, and a go-to scorer.
The unknown always is nerve-racking, yet exciting. Underwood was going to put his fingerprints on this roster at some point. It's just happening a little sooner than we envisioned.