Piper Mailbag: June 2

Lead basketball reporter Derek Piper answers the latest hoops and recruiting questions from Illini Inquirer subscribers.

If someone wants to go to an AAU/EYBL (Whatever they are called), what advice and which one should a newbie go to? Or what events are near C-U coming up?

The best one to go to for Illini fans is the EYBL session in Indianapolis in the spring. AAU is now done until July. Once that picks up again, I’d say your best bet -- in regards to proximity -- is the NY2LA Summer Jam in Mequon, Wis. Not far from Milwaukee. Well-run event with good facilities. They typically pull in a handful of EYBL teams, including Mac Irvin and Meanstreets. That'll be July 19-23.

If you had to take a shot in the dark, how well do you think the 2018 Illini bball class will be?

How many scholarships do you think will ultimately be available for the 2018 class?

Predict Illinois 2018 recruiting class with 4 open scholarships.

I think the Illini will have three scholarships to use in 2018. Four is still a possibility depending on some moving pieces. Either way, this is a pretty important class for this staff—and I think they will do well. Is this the class that they get a big fish from outside the state? I’m not sure that it will be. But Orlando Antigua will certainly try.

My prediction right now is that success comes close to home…



Chicago Corliss 6-foot-10 big man George Conditt

Which assistant pulls in the most 2018 recruits?

Chin Coleman. He has some good opportunities right off the bat, and I think he connects on at least a couple.

Does THT leaving Mac Irvin have any effect on Illinois chances of landing both he and Ayo? Do situations like these lead to people getting their feelings hurt?

Judging on what I know right now, I don’t think this hurts those chances. I’m sure it ruffled some feathers somewhere. But in the end, Illinois likes both a lot and they’re going hard after them.

Who are the 2018 players outside of the state of Illinois that are getting the most attention from the staff?

Silvio De Sousa, Darius DaysIgnas Brazdeikis, D.J. Stewart and Jerome Hunter.

Besides De Souza and Days, which 2018 recruits will Antigua shoot for?

Elijah WeaverNassir LittleMorris Udeze and Colin Castelton.

We put out quite a few offers in 2018/2019 during/after the spring evaluation sessions. Can you name a few the staff already feels they're making headway with? How about a few the staff has basically already given up on?

They definitely feel the best about their progress with the in-state guys: Ayo, THT, Tim Finke and E.J. Liddell. I wouldn’t say they’ve given up on anybody, especially in 2019. I think you wonder about some of the 2018 guys in Florida. Top-50 wing Nassir Little has an offer but haven’t seen much traction there from the outside. Silvio De Sousa, Darius Days and Elijah Weaver will all be really tough to get, but Illinois is still trying to work there. They really like top-100 Ohio forward Jerome Hunter as well. But hard not to think they probably got in too late based on how the competition is shaping up.

What's the difference recruiting wise between this staff and the last? How have coaches/ recruits responded to the new staff?

How has communication changed with the new coaching staff?

What is the overall perception after being on the AAU circuit about this staff and their ability to get more big-time recruits not just in the Midwest but nationally?

I think there are a handful of similarities between the two staffs in how they started out. Made in-state guys a priority early, but also recruited nationally. Offered some high-profile names outside of the state. Got ready to take some big swings right away.

I don’t think the communication is all that different in general practice. Recruiting is recruiting. You talk and text the player. You build relationships with his circle: Parents, coaches and some others. You see some differences with specific players. Horton-Tucker wasn’t hearing much from the previous staff and that’s clearly changed. Finke went a good while without getting much from John Groce’s staff during the year. Granted, Groce had other things to focus on. But now, this staff has given Finke quite a bit of attention.

Back to the question on difference. I think Groce certainly used the sell of what his team accomplished at Ohio and how he developed D.J. Cooper. With Underwood, I think his past successes resonate more because of what he has already shown at the high-major level. Personality-wise, he brings a different presence as well. And in regards to the assistants, this group is more proven in landing talent.

Antigua is one of the higher-profile assistants out there with his track record at Kentucky. He brings a different kind of swagger. This whole staff has swagger. But Antigua, in particular, has one on the recruiting trail. A source recently told me: “If he delivers on half of the guys he says he can bring in, it’s going to be recruiting at a level we haven’t seen here.”

Do you think we have a chance with De Sousa or Days? Seems like they will be very tough to get involved heavily in.

Days says that he won’t cut things down and take visits until after the AAU season ends in July. So Illinois still has some time to put effort into getting one of his five official visits. It’s definitely an outside shot right now, though. Illinois was not one of the seven or eight schools he brought up off the top of his head this spring during recruiting updates.

De Sousa has a shorter list of suitors right now. But Maryland has put in a lot of work. Louisville was early to the party. Latest I’ve heard is that De Sousa is pretty clearly leaning towards Maryland. And some blue bloods could ultimately come calling. Never say never but…

If you wanted someone on these guys, though, Antigua would probably be it.

Do you think we end up with 1 or 2 more for 2017 class?


Did you go to Fremont St while in Vegas? If so, how'd you enjoy the grown adult with a babies head and a diaper?

Stayed at the Golden Nugget on Fremont. Enjoyed many things there. Seeing a grown man in a diaper, which I did, was not one of them.

What's the latest with Francis Okoro?

Have an update coming soon on him. Really making strides with his game. Thought he was really good a few weeks ago in Atlanta. Heard he was even better this past weekend in Los Angeles.

As for recruiting, his uncle has been handling that. Plenty have coaches have put in calls. They can't contact Francis directly until June 15. There’s going to be some big-time competition for him. But he hasn’t taken visits or anything like that to this point. And they didn’t allow coaches to come see him during open gyms this past year. So this recruitment has yet to really take off.

No waffling.... It’s game 1 of the season, what is your best guess at what the starting lineup will be by position?

Te’Jon Lucas
Mark Smith
Mark Alstork
Kipper Nichols
Leron Black

Where's the beef?

Wendy’s. And it’s glorious.

Which bear is best: brown bear or black bear?

Chicago Bears are brown bears, I believe. They tend to lose more than I’d like. So I assume the black bear wins.

How intense is Underwood as a coach?

He’s not at the Frank Martin level of intensity. But he’s cut from that coaching cloth. Underwood is pretty darn intense. He pushes his guys HARD. He doesn’t take BS.

Who will be the next Illini to make the All-Big Ten FIRST team?

Mark Smith.

I am going to the Riverside-Brookfield summer shootout this weekend. Aside from Ayo and THT, are there any other Illini targets I should watch while I am there?

2019 DePaul Prep wing Perry Cowan, 2020 Morgan Park guard Nimari Burnett and 2020 Fenwick guard D.J. Steward.

How many years until we contend for high seeds and B10 titles?

Three. Mark Smith, Trent Frazier and Da'Monte Williams as juniors. Greg Eboigbodin too? Te'Jon Lucas and Kipper Nichols as seniors. Maybe Ayo Dosunmu and Talen Horton-Tucker as sophomores. EJ Liddell and an impact center as freshmen?

What class (year) do you think that we get our first 5-star recruit that plays basketball in an Illini jersey?

2018.. Ayo Dosunmu.

Off topic but big ten related: 1) What the heck is going on in Columbus? Is it time for Thad to step down? And 2) Do you think Collins sustains relative success at NW / do you think he bails for a big boy gig if they come calling?

1. No idea. Heard some talk early on this offseason that Matta had regret about some of the guys he took in previous classes. Felt some pressure to make some moves that turned out to be bad for the culture. Seemed similar to some of the stuff you heard at the end of the Weber era. I’m not sure where Thad is really at health-wise. I know he told the Mark Smith camp that he’d like to coach five more years there. But you can’t help but wonder if OSU wishes Thad did call it quits so they could go get Archie. How they recently lost Darius Bazley and what he had to say about the program shows how far they've fallen.

2. Collins is a good coach. Do I see Northwestern as a spot where he’s going to keep getting to the dance almost every year? Not based on the evidence in front of me right now. They can get back to the tournament this year, but Collins needs a pretty good 2018 class to ensure some sustained success. Ultimately, I do think he will jump to a ‘big boy gig’ if/when it presents itself.

If you had to name 3 recruits you felt the most confident in becoming an Illini, who would they be?

Three recruits in the future? In order… Talen Horton-Tucker, EJ Liddell and Ayo Dosunmu.

Who wins Illini Media Match play;

JW vs. Lon Tay


Finals: JW/LT vs DP/RE

I don’t know what Jeremy’s skills are out on the links. But I know Lon is a golf guy. His son is good, so that must mean he’s pretty good. I am borderline awful. Never played 18. Only use three clubs. And probably no less than five balls on a nine-hole course.

So let’s say Lon against Ryan in the finals. No idea if Ryan is good or not. He’s gotta be better than me. But probably not better than Lon. He is your champion.

other considerations:

who throws first club?


who uses a foot wedge when others not looking?

Even though he’ll be in first… Lon.

who conveniently forgets strokes?

Ryan is playing me in match play, so he has to watch me chase my ball around. He’ll probably forget what shot he’s on after laughing hard enough.

who indulges in most beverages?

Lon has let it be known that he can put in work on a Bud Light case. But more strokes will lead to more drinks for me. And that will be a competition that I will win.

When the coaching staff changed, did last year's team managers get to stay on for next year, or did they have to re-apply for the role?

Managers have stayed the same.

How have the players currently on the roster graded out on Underwood's criteria?

Who graded out the best in the postseason workouts with Underwood?

Underwood liked Te’Jon a lot. Loves his toughness. Really likes his vision for the purposes of this offense. Liked what he saw defensively. I think this staff saw him as the leader of the group based on what they had.

Heard good things about Leron. Same with Kipper. Just think both of those guys fit what Underwood is looking for in terms of competitors and guys that hit the glass relentlessly.

I’m told those were the three who graded out the highest. Obviously, Finke was not able to participate. But I talked to his dad a few weeks ago and he said Mike is doing well. Ready to get back out there soon.

Can you elaborate on how the Charlie Moore and Ayo recruitments were connected? Were we basically told by Irvin that we had to pursue one or the other? It seems like we basically let the Moore recruitment go because we felt decent about our position with Dosunmu.

Charlie and Ayo were going to become eligible at the same time. Obviously, the Irvins are connected to both of those players. There was plenty of discussion between Underwood and the Irvins about Ayo, Charlie and Chin. There were some assertions made about what adding Chin could mean for Illinois in that sense.

I’ll just say.. It became clear that you weren’t going to be able to get both Ayo and Charlie. And Illinois had to position accordingly.

How many Morgan park games will you be at this year?? Lol

Assuming Ayo makes his decision before the high school season, that should be a big factor in my travel plans.

Do you think The Chief will ever come back???


Any updates on the health and expectations for Da’Monte Williams?

Heard Monte is doing well. Was told two weeks ago that he was working in therapy on jumping and landing. He will not be hitting the court with the team when they get here for summer workouts. Expect him to continue to rehab and probably do some things on the side. I don’t think they will push him.

I know Monte is hoping he’ll be ready for the fall, but we’ll see how his knee continues to progress.

What player on the current roster will benefit most from the coaching change?

I think the obvious choice has become Michael Finke, especially now that Jalen Coleman-Lands is gone. Finke is a good pick. Underwood’s system can certainly benefit a nontraditional five who can stretch the floor with his shot. I trust him to put Finke in spots that highlight his strengths and get him good shots consistently.

I would also throw Kipper Nichols in there. His toughness and athleticism fit the kind of player that Underwood wants. He has versatility. And when you think about Underwood having a knack for developing players and improving their skill sets, Nichols comes to my mind as someone he can help evolve on the offensive end. There are some tools to work with there, and I think Nichols can really benefit from having Underwood there to craft them.

Give me your gut estimate on the chances of these:

Will Smith start on Day One of the season?

95 percent

Will Trent Frazier start on Day One?

25 percent

What well-known player would you compare Mark Smith's game?

Comparisons aren’t my favorite. Can set the bar of expectation too high. And many players are just different. Certain skills and styles compare, but there are different levels, different combinations, etc.

All that being said, I see some Deron Williams in Mark Smith’s game. I know he studied him coming up. Bigger lead guard who can penetrate, pass and shoot. I see some Denzel Valentine in his game too. Tom Izzo wasn’t wrong on that. We can get into positions, especially in a system that wants to use multiple lead guards. And Mark isn’t a traditional point. But he’s a basketball player who you want to have the ball in his hands. You know he’s going to make big plays.

What 2019 player are we in good shape with, if any?

EJ Liddell. Jamall Walker has put in a lot of legwork on that one. Liddell has been to campus a handful of times already. Illinois was his first offer. Underwood met Liddell after he got hired, and Liddell likes his system and his plans for the future.

What's your favorite city while on an AAU trip?

Can’t really beat Augusta, Ga. for Peach Jam. That’s where the best talent is at. Tons of coaches are there. And while you spend most of your time in the gym, it has some cool spots to grab some food and a beer after the games are over. Usually run into coaches and media friends in those establishments. Bill Self was sitting at the table next to me last year when I was eating a late-night burger and drinking a Sam Adams.

Nashville is definitely worth the mention here, though. Whether I’m going to Peach Jam or down to Atlanta, I always stop in Nashville on the way down. Love that place. Food is outstanding. Go get Hattie B’s hot chicken... Like, right now. Picked some up on my way home from Atlanta, which was the first time I’d had it since moving back to Champaign. It'll change your life.

Are we still in on Simi Shittu and if so, where does he rank in terms of priority? He doesn't seem to have an offer list typical of a top-10 prospect (i.e. no KU, UK, Duke, UNC offers). Is he rated highly based more on performance or potential?

Shittu is a stud. He’s averaging 20 and 10 on the EYBL circuit. Physical freak. I don’t think the new staff has continued pursuit there.

Romper? Yay/Nay? What size and color do you want?

Yeah. Purple and extra small. Will look good on my girlfriend.

Fannie pack, yes or no?

Nah. I get the purpose. Like when you're riding roller coasters or hiking. But I’d rather just be difficult and not wear one.

Have you been around the new staff enough to get a sense of their chemistry? New faces without much history, just curious how they're all settling in together.

I think they’re still meshing. Expect them to have a good feel for each other after a couple weeks of summer workouts. In terms of recruiting, I’ve heard things have gone pretty smoothly. Some recruits have commented to me that you couldn’t tell the staff had only been together for a short time.

How seriously is Groce pursuing Pickett at Akron?

Haven’t really heard them brought up with him. To be fair, haven’t heard a whole lot on Pickett for a while.

Has Cuonzo made contact with Carte'are Gordon?

I don’t know. Gordon is committed to SLU, and I don’t think Zo would step over that boundary. (Tries to keep a straight face)

Any news regarding Aidan Igiehon? His film is fairly impressive and he seems like a realistic target.

Nothing new since my update a few weeks back. Antigua has strong connections to the AAU program. He played in high school with the coach who is running the recruitment. But if Aidan blows up like they anticipate, that one is going to get tough in a hurry. And it already is with Syracuse, Villanova and Arizona involved.

What is resonating best with recruits about the new staff? What is resonating least?

I’d say proven success and development ability is what’s resonating the best right now with this new staff. Resonating the least? I think we’re seeing them jump in late on some guys in 2018 where they don’t have the relationships like some other programs have built. And it’s hard to win those when that’s the case.

Any hope for Ignas in 2017, or has that shipped sailed?

Don’t think it’s sailed. Should have a better idea in a few weeks.

What's the word on the street where JCL and DJW will land?

I’ve heard that JCL has DePaul, Georgia Tech, Notre Dame and Xavier as his main four. Don’t know about D.J. One of my guys said that D.J. needs to go down to the mid-major level. Doesn’t see him going to UIC or somewhere in Chicago. Don’t have a beat on that one right now.

On a scale of 1-10 how likely is it that Illinois will block JCL from transferring to DePaul?

Appears that he has a full release.

Any other rumblings about other current roster players not enamored with the coaching change? No reason to think this but am especially interested in Leron who seemed close to Groce. I hope he embraces the changes with faster pace and continues to learn how to be aggressive but not stupid.

Not that I’ve heard. I expect Leron to embrace the style and culture that Underwood will establish.

Is the UC game against New Mexico St a standalone game or are we sharing with NW again?

Standalone. Lou Henson Classic.

Nonconference schedule set so far: DePaul, N M St, Grand Canyon, Missouri, any others?

Heard that Austin Peay is on the schedule. Can’t confirm yet, though.

Our nonconference schedule so far next year doesn't look too exciting, know if we'll be playing in a tournament?

Been told they will not be playing in a destination tournament this season. Will be playing home games around Thanksgiving.

Is there a thought to schedule a nonconference game after the B1G tournament since it's so early to be in NYC? Would be a risk if the record isn't good but there weren't more than 5k in many of the home non conf. games last year.

Wouldn’t think so. Don't really see any benefit in it, especially if it's a subpar opponent.

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