USA Today // Matthew OHaren

Werner: What does Mark Alstork add to Illinois Fighting Illini basketball?

Illini Inquirer publisher Jeremy Werner breaks down the ramifications of the Illini adding Mark Alstork

So Brad Underwood is proficient at procuring prolific scorers named Mark. So, how does he do with Ayos?

The one-year Illinois-Mark Alstork marriage makes a lot of sense. Both can benefit greatly. The Wright State grad transfer, who averaged 19.0 points per game for the Raiders last season, offers a lot experience and a lot of scoring to Illinois. The Illini offers Alstork plenty of minutes, plenty of shots, a bigger stage and a coach with the offensive and defensive systems to help him reach his full potential.

Alstork's addition makes the Illini more competitive in what will be a pretty competitive, wide open Big Ten -- at least after consensus favorite Michigan State. With just nine scholarship players entering Wednesday -- and that number likely on the decline -- Illinois needed an experienced scorer to help take some pressure off a talented but young backcourt. The Illini still will be projected in the bottom of the Big Ten, along with Rutgers, Nebraska, Ohio State, Indiana and Iowa (yes, I'm buying Penn State more than these teams). But this addition seems to give the Illini at the very least a chance to finish closer to the top half of the bottom half. 

Illinois still has work to do on the 2017-18 roster, of course. The staff is in desperate need of a big man who can play double-digit minutes as a defender/rebounder to complement Michael Finke. And sources say Illinois has a good bead on one. Though it's unclear who that will be, Illinois is all but certain to add another big body.

Underwood has beat some good competition for players: Michigan State, Kentucky (well, kinda), Ohio State, Butler, Northwestern and Missouri (among others) for Mark Smith, and LSU, South Carolina (kinda) and Pittsburgh for Alstork. Underwood has had some early beats (losing Jeremiah Tilmon to Mizzou and Francesco Badocchi to Virginia), but there are two early wins that provide some optimism of what this staff can accomplish on the recruiting trail. But we'll learn a lot more by November when most of the Class of 2018 signs on the dotted line.

If Jalen Coleman-Lands indeed transfers, a year of Alstork and an open 2018 scholarship seems like a solid trade. Actually, the Illini likely will come out on the winning side of that trade -- especially if they land one of the versatile in-state guards: Talen Horton-Tucker or Tim Finke. Coleman-Lands showed as a freshman that he has the ability to be an elite three-point shooter (42.2 percent threes in 2015-16). He shot well from three last season during conference play (39.4 percent), but on the season, he took a step back as a sophomore (33.3 percent from two and 36.5 percent from three). More frustrating though was that Coleman-Lands' game stalled as a sophomore. Of course, Coleman-Lands hasn't enjoyed a full offseason yet. A stress fracture in his leg robbed him of his first offseason and a broken hand robbed him of two months of development last offseason. Coleman-Lands remained a one-dimensional sharpshooter (72.8 percent of his shots were threes) who struggled -- or had little urge -- to attack the basket (only 7.4 percent of his shots came near the rim). He also made little to no improvement as a defender, where he was a negative. Coleman-Lands reminds of Kendrick Nunn in that regard. He had the quickness and length to be a plus defender -- and seems to have a penchant for disrupting passing lanes, at times -- but didn't seem to have much focus on that end. All that said, Coleman-Lands' potential defection would be a notable minus. Elite shaprshooters are valuable. He would've been a dangerous secondary weapon in Underwood's pace-and-space game. But he does seem limited to a complementary role rather than the starring role some had envisioned when he signed at Illinois as a top-50 recruit.

Alstork's game is more versatile than Coleman-Lands. In fact, he has at least some statistical offensive similarities to Malcolm Hill. The former Illini -- and No. 3 career scorer in program history -- is a bigger-bodied presence. But both ranked in the top-250 in the country in free throw rate last season (6.5 free throws per game for Alstork, 5.8 for Hill). Alstork actually draws fouls at a higher rate (12th in the country) than Hill (106th) -- which will allow him to get some easy points. Both also have versatile offensive games and can score at all levels. Both shoot a lot of threes (40 percent of Alstork's shots last season were threes, 42 percent of Hill's shots last season were threes) though Alstork shoots a slightly higher career rate (36.8 percent compared to Hill's career 35.2 percent rate). Alstork gets to the rim at a higher rate: 26.5 percent of his shots come at the rim -- 10 percent higher than Hill -- which he made at a 54.2 percent rate. Though, Hill was a better finisher, making 77.5 percent of his shots at the rim. Hill shot 10 percent more two-point jumpers, but those are shots Underwood and most metrics-lovers would trade for shots at the rim or behind the three-point line. Alstork must improve his efficiency. He dominated the ball at Wright State (seventh highest usage rate in the country). He had a tendency to get out of control attacking the rim, resulting in wild shots or bad turnovers. But he put the ball through the rim in a multitude of ways. Combined with Te'Jon LucasMark Smith and Trent Frazier, the Illini have a more dynamic offensive backcourt than last season.

Mark Alstork was a First-Team All-Horizon League selection, so he was a force at mid-major Division I basketball. So how'd he do against high-major opponents? We have just three examples from his two seasons at Wright State.

  • Nov. 20, 2015 vs. Kentucky (sophomore): 9 points, 3-for-8 FG, 1-for-3 three, 2-2 FT, 4 reb, 2 ast, 0 TOs
  • Dec. 8, 2015 vs. Xavier (sophomore): 3 points, 1-for-6 FG, 1-for-2 three, 0-0 FT, 6 reb, 1ast, 0 TOs
  • Dec. 3, 2016 vs. Penn State (junior): 15 points, 3-for-18 FG (2-5 three), 7-7 FT, 5 reb, 1 ast, 7 TOs

What can we take of this? Not much. It's not an encouraging sample size, but its a very small one. And he'll be surrounded by much better talent at Illinois. Alstork should produce, especially points, but he likely won't turn into an incredibly efficient player due to turnover issues and some wild shot attempts.

Other than scoring, what does he do? Alstork is a plus passer, who had the No. 170 assist rate in the country. But he's a messy ballhandler, averaging 4.3 turnovers per game. Again, his usage rate was the seventh highest in the country, so turnovers are going to happen. But his 23.0 turnover rate is still pretty high. He's a plus defensive rebounder but minimal offensive rebounder (that may change with Underwood's penchant for offensive rebounds). He must improve his defense, but he has the size and athleticism to take strides there. And again, that's one of the reasons he's coming to Illinois -- to learn from one of the best defensive coaching trees in college basketball.

There's always a risk in a new coach bringing in transfers to a rebuild. Groce learned that they can have a negative effect on culture-building. Transfers often bring some kind of baggage, and Alstork is no different. No has called him a cancer, but Alstork did butt heads with first-year Wright State coach Scott Nagy. Alstork is a fiery player who wears his emotions on his sleeves, sometimes to his detriment. Alstork was called for five technical fouls last season, fifth most in Division I basketball. Nagy didn't start Alstork for two games after a few heated technicals. Former Illini walk-on Mike LaTulip, who played at Wright State last season (averaging 7.0 points per game), admitted Alstork was a fiery player. But he said that's not always a bad thing.

"The thing about Mark is he's an extremely fiery and competitive guy," LaTulip said. "He does have a tendency to wear his emotions on his sleeve, but you'd rather have it that way than have a guy that needs a kick in the butt every now and then to get him going. Think about Draymond Green. Maybe there are some people that can't stand Draymond Green, but he's wears his emotions on his sleeves and plays hard and he wins games for the Warriors. The technicals or whatever, you'll take that any day over one that you need to light a fire under them."

Alstork cares a lot about basketball. He wants to win, and he wants to be a pro. That sounds similar to former Illini Rayvonte Rice, a pretty darn good Big Ten player. Rice's teammates didn't seem to respond to him as well. Like Rice, Alstork doesn't seem like a natural leader, so it'll be up to the coaching staff to make sure the mesh works. But Alstork now is playing for a coach that is equally, if not more, fiery.

"One thing about Mark, and Illinois fans will learn this quickly if they haven't already, the kid has no shortage of confidence," LaTulip said. "He's the type of guy you want the ball in his hands at the end of the game. He's willing to hit the big shot. He's got such an unwavering belief in himself. I think that's a characteristic that you can stack up any skill you want -- shooting, passing, whatever it is -- if you have that belief in yourself, you can go a long way."

Translating mid- or low-major transfers to the Big Ten is always a difficult, imperfect exercise. For every Rayvonte Rice, there's an Aaron Cosby But Alstork certainly fills a huge need for Illinois in 2017-18. Given the lack of proven scorers and players around him, he appears a great bet to score about 13-16 points per game on a team that will rely heavily on a guard-powered offense to win games in the Big Ten.


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