Will transfer Sam McLaurin start for John Groce's first Illinois team? How about Tyler Griffey? What's Malcom Hill's future look like? And why hasn't Illinois offered Larry Austin yet? Ask NG beat writer Paul Klee, who is chatting Wednesday.
Afternoon everyone. Beat writer Paul Klee joining you for another Illinois basketball chat. Plenty of fresh material today if there are some original questions in the queue. Spent the morning at Ubben with the staff. The coaches are all in town after a few days away. Isaac Chew played the role of head coach at Caravan stop in Springfield on Monday. John Groce, Dustin Ford and Jamall Walker were in Athens at the Ohio basketball banquet - a bittersweet (but mostly sweet) time for the coaches. Ask about that if you want. Or anything else. I'll answer it. Moving quickly today to get to as many questions as we can. Fire away. Klee
How are AAU and HS coaches responding to Groce and his staff's approach to recruiting? How does this differ from what you used to hear about Bruce?
Heights- Can't compare the two. Groce has only been on the job for two months on Monday. The reception for him has been exceptional. And I think that was a misnomer about this hire, particularly after those AAU coaches said (anonymously) they had "never heard of him" and that he would have a difficult time. Groce, Walker, Chew - those guys have been around Chicago before and already had ties in Indiana, St. Louis and Ohio. This isn't entirely new territory. Perhaps you saw in Sunday's News-Gazette that Groce met with Simeon coach Rob Smith for roughly three hours and shared his vision for the program. "Now when it's time for a recruit to (choose a college program) I can say, 'This is what their goals are. This is what they want to do,'" Smith said of their meeting. And Groce has been to a handful of high schools in the Chicago area, speaking at St. Rita (2015 standout Charles Matthews), etc. There is still work to be done, of course, and these coaches have ground to make up with the 2013 class. The 2014 and 2015 classes will be particulary important because of that. Hope that helps. Klee
One more thing on that topic... the new staff considered a team camp in June - similar to the one that has been at Ubben and the Assembly Hall in years past - but right now it doesn't look like it will happen, unless something changes. They didn't want to have a half-hearted field without the top players and fields and let that be the first impression. For example, Simeon would have attended, but guys like Kendrick Nunn and Jabari Parker had obligations with USA Basketball, so they wouldn't be there. There's still a small chance they'll throw one together for this year, but there definitely will be a June camp in coming years. Klee
Has Groce added a strength and conditioning coach to his staff yet to replace Jimmy Price?
Champ- Yes, John Groce has hired the next strength and conditioning coach. Expect you'll see his name soon. They wanted to have one in place before the players return June 7-8-ish. Klee
With Jalen James recent slide in rankings and the pursuit of Nic Moore, and other 2013 PGs.
Do you think Jalen James will still be signing a LOI with Illinois? I understand Coach Groce needs to do what he feels is right for the roster but it would leave a bad taste if a kid like Jalen who has been pushing Illinois to other recruits gets recruited over.
Gene- A "slide" in recruiting rankings has no effect on this staff's perception of a recruit. Rankings mean nothing, and they're usually wrong and influenced by factors and school allegiances, and outside the top 15-20 kids, I would ignore the rankings. The fact Jalen James didn't have a good prep season and spring session would be a concern. But you need a PG in 2013 - if not two. There are others the Illinois staff is pursuing - from Demetrius Jackson (an ideal fit with his toughness) to Tyler Ennis (Illinois is one of five schools he's considering, with Syracuse the team to beat) to Kyle Davis to Monte Morris. And there are others they're looking at. And Nic Moore is a possibility. I expect it will be Illinois or Purdue - unless someone else gets involved. The Illinois State transfer has been on a cruise, so I'm sure his recruitment will heat up in the near future. And he could play at Illinois. You need more PGs. You've needed more PGs for several years. With how John Groce wants to play - fast - that position is recruiting priority No. 1. Klee
I had great hopes for Egwu when he signed, and he did a fair job as a frosh with his hustle which made him a fan favorite. However, his ability to stay on the floor for any length of time and be a strong defensive presence just wasn't there. Can/will he improve enough to become a shot blocker and strong post defender? Can the game slow down enough for him to avoid rapid accumulation of fouls. He is a great kid, but lacking in the early understanding of the game that comes from playing as a youngster. How do you see him developing and are there any other good options developing at the five?
Pogo- To answer your question, don't know if he'll improve enough, but I expect he will improve. He wants to get better and works at it. I know that's the first thing big-man coach Dustin Ford told me after working Nnanna - "He wants to get better." You'd be surprised at how often that's not the case, particularly with big guys. Personnel-wise, Egwu and Abrams (stay healthy!) are the two most important pieces to next season. Other options? I think you'll see a four-guard lineup at times next season, with Joe Bertrand playing minutes at the 4. Then you'd have a three-man big man rotation (Egwu, Griffey, McLaurin), with the other bigs spelling them for (short) stretches. Going forward, Benet Academy center Sean O'Mara is one to watch. Plays hard. Big body. He's the third-best big man prospect in the state in 2014, and Alexander and Okafor will be very tough gets. Expect you'll see Illinois' interest in O'Mara continue to rise. Wisconsin is involved there, too. Ohio standout Maverick Morgan (2013) will be on the Illinois campus in early June, as well. Like I wrote on Sunday, there simply aren't many big men going around - that's a familiar refrain among coaches around the Midwest that I've talked to. Klee
Hey Paul - Just wanted your thoughts on Nic Moore. Judging from the hundreds of times you plugged Lewis Jackson over the last few years, Im guessing you love this kid. The stereotypical little engine that could, with the big huge heart who does all the things it takes to win. Except in this case, Nic Moore can flat out shoot it. Very impressive in the NIT. Do you think he'd be a great addition to the Illini? Are there any negatives we don't know about him, outside of his size? Thanks-
Anonymous- Nic Moore can play at Illinois, particularly given your other options. Plays with a swagger. Supremely confident. Size is the concern and always will be. He's small. Watched him in Bloomington-Normal a couple times and didn't think he was 5-9. What sold me was a three-game stretch against postseason teams - Creighton, Ole Miss and Stanford - where Moore averaged 23 points (plus-20 in each game) and made 11 three-pointers. I like the Illinois freshman - especially as people, great group - but there wasn't a freshman on the UI roster that did that against quality competition. Illinois would take him. "Great" addition? I would say quality addition. He would add something they dont have. They're recruiting him and will continue to do so until he chooses his next destination. So we'll see what happens. But yeah, he could help. Klee
Thanks Paul, love the chat. My question is "Does this staff see the huge potential I saw in Nanna
last year when he was able to run the floor. I can only imagine that he has only gotten better. I also observed that has a motor like no other!!
Your thought on the staffs perception and maybe your take.
Warrior- They like his potential quite a bit. They'll like him even more a year from now. Plays hard. Wants to learn. Needs to improve his hands. Exceedingly sharp, in terms of picking things up. You don't have to tell him twice. And a joy to work with. Haven't enjoyed a player at Illinois more than Nnanna. He will make $1 million some day even if it's out of basketball. Just a sharp guy. Basketball-wise, he's got a ways to go. Egwu regressed last season from November through March. His basketball mentors in Chicago saw the same thing. I know some of his people would like to get him involved with a sort of big-man camp this summer, so we'll see if that develops. And I expect Dustin Ford will be very good for Nnanna Egwu. Nnanna told me the spring workouts were "tremendous" in terms of footwork. The NCAA rule change that allows coaches 8 hours weekly with players during summer school is an advantage, particularly when you have a new staff learning what its new players can and can't do. Klee
It seems that one of the major attributes of John Groce was his recruiting skills according to players in the media when Groce signed with Illinois. He recruited well at Ohio State as an assistant coach and it seems for years here at Illini that J. Howard had a large role in recruiting. How will John Groce adjust to becoming the head coach along with maintaining those recruiting tools and techniques. Will he rely heavily on his assistant coaches to recruit or will be doing the majority of the recruiting? If he does a majority of the recruiting will he be able to balance the other obligations of the head coaching position effectively?
Mike- Thanks for writing in. Not sure I understand the specifics of your question, but I'll give it a run. John Groce puts a great deal of responsibility on his assistants. For example, he had no issue heading back to Athens for the Ohio banquet and leaving Isaac Chew in charge of the Caravan stop in Springfield. He trusted Chew could handle it, and he did. In evaluating prospects, he listens to their opinion. Like, actually listens. And he values their opinions. The final decision on a scholarship offer, however, will come from the head coach. You haven't seen this staff shovel out offers to anyone that can dribble. They're going to be frugal with their scholarship offers. Landing Brandon Miller - who could be a top assistant in the Big Ten - in a director of basketball operations spot was a coup. That's an extraordinary get for that position. Miller was part of a Xavier staff that included four future head coaches - Thad Matta (Ohio State), Sean Miller (Arizona), John Groce (Illinois) and Alan Majors (Charlotte). Miller worked with Matta for seven of his eight years as a coach - and Matta has dominated the Big Ten with five titles in seven years. So that experience is a big positive. I know there was a movement to include a former Illini on the staff. And John Groce interviewed Deon Thomas for a spot. But as a coach starting at an Illinois program that has struggled of late, I think he needed to be surrounded by familiar coaches that he knows and trusts. In a few years - perhaps when one of his assistants moves on to another job - you will see a Deon Thomas or Roger Powell as an assistant at Illinois. I expect that will happen. Here's the bottom line for me: I've had two people that I trust - both within the athletic department - tell me in the past week they see Bill Self qualities in John Groce. Specifically in how he works with people and athletes. That's high praise, and these aren't folks that toss it around.
But this staff has a lot of work to do. The first year is really going to be an uphill battle, and this group must make significant improvements if it hopes to make the NCAA tournament against this schedule. Hope that all makes sense - going quickly here. Klee
I've heard both Bruce Weber and John Groce talk about seeking players with "toughness" but each coach appears to have his own ideas about what that means. Can you shed any light on how Groce's definition of a "tough" player might differ from Weber's? Is this all just coach speak?
Pab- It's a very good question. Try my best here. Working with both, I don't see their definitions of "toughness" as being so different. And I think most coaches would have a similar definition. In John Groce's case, he would describe his last Ohio team as being quite tough. Not in a backyard-alley, barfight, beat-you-up kind of way. But in how the Bobcats came back from down 15 points to North Carolina in the Sweet 16. Many teams would've folded. Ohio came back and took the lead. That is a toughness. D.J. Cooper played with a swagger (and challenged opposing fans on his Twitter account, which isn't a bad thing if you back it up) and Walter Offutt came after you. I think it's also a go-get-it toughness. Groce doesn't mind playing with a 6-foot-5 4-man - provided he's a go-getter. They had a guy at Ohio by the name of Jerome Tillman. He was about 6-5, 6-6, played down low and was an All-League kind of guy. Undersized but tough. Jay Bilas did a great piece on toughness a few years ago. I'll look it up. But I hope that helps. Toughness will be attribute No. 1 or 2 when this staff evaluates prospects. Klee
One thing John Groce is doing right now - as we speak - is reaching out to former Illini and bringing them (or keeping them) into the new fold. He's talked to Dee Brown and Nick Anderson and is in the process of getting in touch with Deron Williams. Brian Cook is next. I know this staff would like to organize a reunion for some time in the fall.
Going to wrap this up after an hour. Good chat today. Appreciate the questions - feel free to send them in early for next week. Like today, I can only answer what you guys send. I'll be on with Isaac Chew on SportsTalk from 5-6 p.m. tonight (WDWS 1400-AM). And we'll have a profile of Al Martindale - after 29 years as an athletic trainer at Illinois, Mr. Martindale is retiring - in Sunday's News-Gazette. His stories from Illini football and basketball are endless. And it also allowed me to talk with Illini great David Williams - and that never gets old. Thanks again. Klee