What kind of presence did you see from the new Illini staff on the circuit?
Ryan Easterling: I thought the staff did a good job of not only making their rounds to see their primary targets at the different events, but also being visible in front of those key recruits. I think what stood out to me the most were the staff's interactions with other coaches outside of the games. Whether it was Chin Coleman cutting up with other coaches with Chicago ties, or Orlando Antigua hanging around with some of his former colleagues, the staff seemed to be well-received. And even though Brad Underwood spent a significant amount of time on the phone, he never took his eyes off of the action.
Derek Piper: I think it was a confident presence. One that carries some swagger. This staff certainly understands the task ahead. They need players -- in the immediate and in future classes. They need to find system fits. The previous staff didn't exactly leave them stockpiled with big guys. Those are challenges that they face. But Underwood knows how to win. He knows how to develop players. He knows his style is attractive and productive. And his assistants are proven talent-getters. They're very connected. They know how to grind and how to make in-roads. So I saw a staff that believes in the mission and trusts that they have the group that can make things happen.
Which target did you fall for last month and why?
Easterling: As far as Illinois targets go, I'm starting to warm up a lot more to Talen Horton-Tucker His game is unique and is rounding out in a hurry. Horton-Tucker is improving his skill level and becoming more comfortable with his dribble-drive. He always battles for rebounds and has a better feel for the game in general compared to this same time last year. Also, I didn't get a chance to see him, but Silvio De Sousa was a monster all weekend. Among the national guys, Bol Bol was fun to watch (What's not to love about a 7'3" guy who can consistently stroke it from 3?), and Marvin Bagley is just not even human. He was unbelievable against the best talent there.
Piper: Without question, it was CIA Bounce 6-foot-8 forward Ignas Brazdeikis. Wow. Through two live periods, he is averaging 23 points and 7.6 rebounds per game -- shooting 51.4 percent overall and 37.5 percent from deep. I watched him explode for 42 points last Saturday. He has a playing style that will remind you of a left-handed Gordon Hayward. He's skilled, crafty, can score at all three levels and brings length to the wing. Iggy is a 2018 prospect right now, but a reclass to 2017 is very possible. And he's ready.
Besides Ayo Dosunmu, who is the most important target in the Class of 2018?
Easterling: Do I have to pick someone other than Dosunmu? Because he's a clear number one. But aside from him, adding athleticism will be a huge focus in 2018. Tim Finke and Horton-Tucker will both be important, but how big would a guy like DeSouza be, especially if the Illini don't add a big man in 2017 via transfer? The other key "2018" could be Ignas Brazdeikis, who could very well re-classify to the 2017 class. The Canadian prospect has been a problem early on on the EYBL circuit, and should he reclassify, he could provide Illinois a big boost in a crucial year 1 for Brad Underwood.
Piper: This answer really should be a big man. But the class simply doesn't possess much depth at the center spot. There isn't a clear option for the Illini right now in that regard. So I will go with Simeon wing Talen Horton-Tucker, who I would place second on my 2018 in-state wish list. That's no disrespect to hometown product Tim Finke. But I see Horton-Tucker as a perfect fit for Underwood with his positionless skill set and competitive toughness. I think that would be a big win for Illinois with his talent and upside. I also think it would be a big win up in Chicago in terms of perception, as well as pipeline-building for prospects like Ayo and others.
Which 2019 or younger target is rising in your eyes?
Easterling: E.J. Liddell looks like an entirely different player than the Liddell of a year ago. He has vastly improved his body and conditioning, and it shows through in his production. Liddell has improved his quickness while maintaining his strength, allowing him to be more effective and creative with his offensive game. Defensively, he's able to be more aggressive in crashing the glass, and has come into his own as an initiator in the transition offense.
Piper: There are some obvious answers here. I really liked what I saw from Belleville West 2019 forward EJ Liddell. Love his game and continued growth, but that's not really anything new. Chicago product Kahlil Whitney looked good with the Mac Irvin Fire 16U squad. The state missed seeing him after he transferred out to New Jersey prior to this past high school season. You can tell he's piecing more of his game together. Huge upside with his athleticism and skills, and that's recognized by Scout with a top-50 ranking in 2019. My selection is 2020 guard Nimari Burnett. He will be next in line to claim the throne at Morgan Park. He's already a lethal outside shooter. Just a gamer, who can be big-time as he develops his off-the-dribble game and physically develops.
What stands out about the Illini staff's approach so far?
Easterling: I like that the staff is being aggressive, but what really stands out is the sheer number of players the staff have offered thus far during the live period alone. Now, some of that has to do with them wanting to recruit a certain type of player, and many in the national top-50 fit that bill. But the past few days have brought about a slew of reports leading off with "Illinois has offered..". I'll give them credit, they know what they want, and they're pursuing it full-steam-ahead.
Piper: Obviously, everyone is talking about the amount of offers that has been delivered over the past two weeks. It is clearly a wide net. It'll be mocked by some, but I think it is a good approach -- especially for a new staff. You start by evaluating who you like, while giving yourself options in different places. From there, you work to see where you can gain traction and where you can't. Again, this is a staff with national connections. Winning in-state battles is highly important. But they are going to be aggressive outside of the state borders as well. And why not?