Who will be more productive during their collegiate careers: Jeremiah Tilmon or the combo of Greg Ebogibodin and Matic Vesel?
OK, I admit that's not really a fair way to judge it. After all, Tilmon fills just one scholarship for Missouri and Eboigbodin and Vessel cost the Illini two. But after Tilmon's defection, the Illini got creative in filling a huge hole(s) in the post with two lightly-recruited but long-term bigs born in other countries. You and I have no idea if Eboigbodin (from Nigeria) will be good, though coaches rave about his defensive and rebounding prowess. You and I have no idea if Vesel (from Slovenia) will be good, though his length, skill and international experience provide some promise. But Illinois head coach Brad Underwood attacked his needs in a creative way that showed some traits of his staff.
Underwood's staff knows what it wants -- and is confident in its evaluations. Eboigbodin was a Horizon League signee before UIC released him. Thus, some fairly question whether he's a Big Ten-level big man recruit. But Pittsburgh offered after his release, and Purdue, Boston College and Georgia Tech all showed late interest. That power-five interest certainly is reassuring. But it seems the Illini don't need other high-major offers to reassure their interest in a player -- see 2018 Chicago big man George Conditt and Vesel. The Illini staff has said it wants its big men to do one or two things well and then they can work on the rest. Eboigbodin was an elite rebounder for a prominent prep program and plays plus defense. Matic ... well, there's only so much YouTube highlights can show, but he looks long, skilled and mobile. The staff certainly thinks highly of him, and given Underwood's success, he gets the benefit of the doubt right now. But the Illini seemed to add two post pieces that complement each other well and fit Underwood's scheme. He wants bigs who can run the court. He wants a big who can defend anyone on the court and rebound ridiculously. Eboigbodin has those tools. He wants a big who can initiate the offense, pass, run the court and hit jumpers. Matic seems to have those tools. Their development will be fascinating to watch.
Just remember, these additions aren't made with just 2017-18 in mind. Illinois would (still can) add a fifth-year transfer big (or forward) if that's the case, and I'm sure they'd love to do that. Eboigbodin likely will play a minor role off the bench -- just rebound and play defense, kid -- and Vesel is a great redshirt candidate due to the strength he must gain. But these adds now help ease the pressure on 2018 and 2019 bigs to perform immediately.
The pursuit of both bigs also shows the Illini's wide connections. Assistant Chin Coleman evaluated Eboigbodin as a Division-I big man at UIC. And after huge gains his senior season, Illinois moved quickly on Eboigbodin to lock him up. The relationship with Coleman helped stave off other high-major options, including Purdue, which knows a few things about Big Ten big men. Orlando Antigua's international connections -- he was head coach of the Dominican Republic national team -- helped lead the Illini to Vesel. Mark Few has long taken advantage of the international market, and that's worked very well for Gonzaga. It's nice to see Illinois broaden its horizons rather than be reliant on one or two territories Michigan coach John Beilein did and found Moe Wagner in Germany.
Speaking of, I've long thought John Beilein as one of college basketball's best coaches. When Illinois fired John Groce, I hoped Illinois would find its Beilein -- a highly-intelligent X's and O's man with a strong staff of recruiters who prioritized skilled players who fit his system and didn't succumb to outside pressures during a rebuild at a high-pressure job. Aafter all, Illinois and Michigan basketball have somewhat similar histories. Josh Whitman may have turned my hopes into a reality.
Let's take inventory. Outgoing are juniors Jalen Coleman-Lands and D.J. Williams, along with the graduations of Malcolm Hill, Maverick Morgan, Tracy Abrams, Mike Thorne Jr. and Jaylon Tate. The Illini lose 70 percent of last year's scoring output and 53 percent of its rebounds. It adds a high-usage, high-scoring Horizon League grad transfer (Mark Alstork) and five freshmen. It's counting on big strides from its there juniors (Michael Finke, Leron Black and Aaron Jodan) and two sophomores (Te'Jon Lucas and Kipper Nichols). It's counting on Alstork's transition to be smooth. It's counting on a few of its freshmen to make huge impacts. It's a team with some talent in a Big Ten that is pretty wide open after the first few teams. But this is a team that likely enters next season with wrong-side-of-the-bubble expectations. Yet, the coach, the conference and the newness sure brings a lot of intrigue.
Illinois still has two scholarships open for 2017-18. With just one scholarship senior (Alstork), that currently leaves three scholarships open for the Class of 2018. Lead guard, wing and big man. Yup, sounds good.
The staff has shown that state of Illinois still is the priority. The hirings of Coleman (Chicago) and Jamall Walker (downstate) made this apparent. But the recent offers are confirmation that Underwood plans to do what so many other Illini coaches have done -- to varying levels of success -- by focusing first on state of Illinois talent. Of course, that only makes sense. It's the home state, plush with talent. In 2016, Illinois had produced the third most Division-I college basketball players among states and the fourth most NBA players. Historically, however, the Illini have struggled to keep elite in-state talent at home.
Five-star 2018 point guard Ayo Dosunmu is a huge early litmus test for this staff -- though Mark Smith obviously was a great start. Can they sell an elite talent to stay in state? Can they sell him that he will handle the ball enough on a team that will already have ball-dominant guards Smith, Lucas and Trent Frazier? They've laid a great foundation, especially Coleman, and for some reason, the first blue blood offer (Kansas) didn't come until last week. And the Jayhawks already have two Chicago points guards slated for the next few years (transfer Charlie Moore and 2019 West Chicago point guard Markese Jacobs.
The Illini also have been aggressive with the state's other Division-I prospects. They offered tough, skilled Simeon 2018 wing Talen Horton-Tucker after John Groce's staff didn't -- for who knows what reason. They've quickly rejuvenated the Illini's efforts for athletic, skilled Tim Finke, who seemed like a long shot and a bad fit with Groce (Vanderbilt and Notre Dame have made huge impressions on Finke, though). They were the first power-five program to offer sky-rocketing 2018 Chicago Corliss center George Conditt (who draws comparisons to D.J. Wilson). They were the first power-five program to offer lanky, athletic 2019 Bloomington wing Chris Payton. They were the first power-five program to offer 2020 Morgan Park guard Nimari Burnett. The staff is showing early preference for the in-state prospects. Will the state reciprocate?
Underwood has quickly reshaped the Illini roster more to his liking. He's attempting to create a versatile roster full of differing body types and skill sets. After missing four straight NCAA Tournament, Illinois certainly needed a creative problem-solver to address its issues. The initial blueprint has been drawn one who has made four straight NCAA Tournaments. The continued reconstruction of the roster -- and development over the next four years -- will be fascinating to watch.