The Illinois class of 2017 no longer is a top-10, let alone top-25 class. But there's still plenty of time lleft -- about a month before the spring signing period ends -- for new coach Brad Underwood to turn this into one that springs his era forward.
Mark Smith will visit Illinois on Thursday. That's certainly not a bad thing. Actually, it's a huge deal. Some thought Illinois was losing traction with the Illinois Mr. Basketball after Michigan State and Kentucky entered the picture -- and now Duke. But the new Illini staff's visit to Edwardsville seemed to keep them in the mix. Another visit to Champaign -- Smith has visited multiple times -- just gives Underwood, Orlando Antigua, Jamall Walker and Chin Coleman another chance to make their pitch to the Smith family. Stay in state and be a legend. Come to Illinois and be the focal piece immediately -- not a role player at Michigan State or a bench player at Kentucky or Duke. Be the guy to start the rebirth of Illinois basketball and be a legend for life. Sounds great, but will it work? The extra visit is certainly shows Smith wants to hear more. Michigan State has a ton to sell (immediate Big Ten title contention and Final Four contention; Denzel Valentine and Gary Harris as recent examples of guard developed into top-20 draft picks). Kentucky and Duke are sexy, but Kentucky hasn't prioritized him like other targets and Duke has other priorities (their Wednesday visit is scheduled but still not a certainty, according to a source). Illinois just has to hope that its pitch tugs at the right emotions for Smith. It certainly seems to have some traction, because Michigan State isn't that confident entering their in-home visit on Tuesday. The Spartans had hoped to wrap this up by now and a little perturbed that it's not. The Illini are a big threat again.
Taylor Bruninga would be a good late get for someone -- in the Missouri Valley Conference. Few debate that. But would he be a good get for Illinois? That's definitely debatable, and most I've talked to think he's a fringe Big Ten prospect at best. I talked to three sources who have watched a lot of Bruninga and asked them if Bruninga can play at the Big Ten level.
Source 1: "I just don't see a high major. Would definitely have to redshirt. Love him as a Valley kid. But he's still such a puppy, he could blossom even more than I'm anticipating."
Source 2: "He won't be ready for a couple years. Not sure if he could play for Brad since he isn't very good defensively. He will red-shirt wherever he goes."
Source 3: "He's not a Big Ten caliber kid. Could he be Alec Peters 2.0? Yeah, he could. But obviously him and Peters are different style of play. Bruninga's a little taller. Peters is more of a perimeter-oriented guy. Peters played at a higher level in high school, had way more interest in high school. I think he's good, man. But for Illinois? He's a redshirt candidate. He's good. Good family too. You're not going to have red flags like that. He can do a bit of everything and plays hard. But that alone ain't going to get it done for him in the Big Ten. If he were 7-foot, it's a different story."
I asked one of the sources to compare Bruninga to current Illini Michael Finke, which he said was "fair." Finke wasn't a no-doubt high-major prospect either, but the source said Finke was a more proven deadly shooter. Bruninga, he said, doesn't have that one thing he does extremely well against top competition. In the end, Bruninga would be a gamble for a staff that needs post players who can play within a year or two. But he does have a skill set and still an unknown upside that could make him a productive role player later in his career. But most think Illinois should shoot for higher.
But the big man market is thin, and Illinois needs to find a body or two. JUCO center and former Iowa State and Xavier commitment Brady Ernst had modest production at Indian Hills CC (9.4 ppg, 6.5 rpg) and has three years of eligibility. He has a long body and plus athleticism and does some nice things around the rim offensively and defensively. Illinois and Nebraska are the main schools attached to him right now, along with Florida Gulf Coast and VCU. He's intriguing.
Oh, and I'd give a call to Illinois State graduate transfer MiKyle McIntosh too. He's not a traditional "big," but the long, strong, athletic forward can play the four in Underwood's scheme. He'd be a difference-maker on defense and shot a solid 35.6 percent from three. He won't replace Malcolm Hill's production, but he would've been one of the top candidates for Missouri Valley Player of the Year next year and can make a big Big Ten impact.
Franceso Badocchi is fairly unknown as well. But unlike Bruninga, the 6-foot-7 Kansas forward is a no-doubt high-major athlete who does two things extremely well: dunk and block shots. He doesn't have a lot of tools in the skill set yet, but he can be a difference maker at the rim on defense (and on the wing with his albatross wing span) and offense (as an offensive rebounder -- which Underwood prioritizes). Illinois needs a Brian Randle-like athlete on its roster -- of course, Badocchi is way more unproven at the same age -- and Badocchi fits the bill as a potentially nice complementary piece. Sign me up.
I've said it before, but I'll say it again. Illinois must be completely sold on Carlton Bragg to go hard for him. We saw under John Groce how transfers with the wrong personalities can spoil culture-building. Sometimes the tantalizing talent isn't worth the risk. That's up to Underwood and AD Josh Whitman to determine.
Wait, Jeremiah Tilmon isn't a Missouri Tiger yet? He may still end up in Columbia, but Mizzou should've learned that nothing is easy in that recruitment.
Will the third time be a charm for the Illini in their pursuit of Charlie Moore? See my above statement on Tilmon. Moore had two previous chances to choose Illinois, and he passed. Counting on the 2016 Illinois Mr. Basketball to pick Illinois this time around might seem foolish. But he's got a spot if he wants it. The 5-foot-9 bucket-getter would look good in Underwood's pace-and-space offense.