May 1 Illinois basketball chat

May 1 Illinois basketball chat

Wednesday, May 1, 2019 - 3:00pm

Our college basketball writer Scott Richey will tip off the month of May with his weekly chat on all things Illinois hoops. It could be a big month for the Illini. Kofi Cockburn is signed, but Brad Underwood and Co. are still waiting on Bernard Kouma (he has until May 15) and have another scholarship to fill since Antwan January is officially not coming. T.J. Holyfield anyone? Plus, future recruiting is back to being a primary focus this spring with a half dozen new offers in the last week. Who caught the Illini coaches eyes? Who might fill out the 2020 class? Is it too early to start thinking 2021? Richey will answer any and all of your questions starting at 3 p.m. Wednesday.

Scott Richey wrote on May 01, 2019 at 3:05 pm
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Back at N-G headquarters in downtown Champaign after my early afternoon stop at Atkins Tennis Center as I continue my role as Illinois tennis beat writer this weekend. I'll be back at Atkins with the men's tennis team hosting the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament. But that's still to come starting Friday afternoon. Right now? Time to answer your Illinois basketball questions (of which there appear to be a good number so thank you in advance).

Let's get to it ...

NJ Grainger Alum wrote on May 01, 2019 at 3:05 pm

Kipper Nichols! Going into last season, I thought he would be a significant offensive contributor. In your opinion or the opinion of other knowledgeble people (coaching staff?), why is Kipper inconsistent? Is it confidence? When Kipper is good, he adds a lot to the team. 

In most articles, or social media posts looking ahead to next year, he is barely mentioned.

Scott Richey wrote on May 01, 2019 at 3:05 pm
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NJ Grainger Alum,

You're not the only person who thought Kipper Nichols would carve out a bigger role for himself this past season, and that group includes yours truly. What Nichols did in the Big Ten tournament in New York City against Iowa (31 points on 10 of 18 shooting, including five three-pointers) seemed to indicate he had something going.

Turns out the same thing that has plagued Nichols his entire time at Illinois instead continued in 2018-19. Stringing together consistent performances has not been his strong suit. As for the reason? Well, the Illinois coaches have spoken multiple times about trying to pull the best (be it energy or effort or ouput) out of Nichols more regularly. Whatever they've tried so far obviously hasn't clicked consistently.

Eventually this past season, Brad Underwood simply went all in on Aaron Jordan playing the 4 alongside a backcourt of either three point guards (Ayo Dosunmu, Trent Frazier and Andres Feliz) or two of those guys plus Da'Monte Williams.

After last season, it's hard to imagine what Nichols' role will be in 2019-20 other than playing a few minutes off the bench. That's especially true if Illinois is able to land grad transfer TJ Holyfield. He'll get the lion's share of minutes at the 4 would be my guess.

Scottie R wrote on May 01, 2019 at 3:05 pm

For a team that finished terribly in the Big10, it's nice to see such positive vibes.  If the top 7 or so players stay and improve before next season and add in the new folks, do you see this team breaking the upper half of the Big10 or, dare I say (dare, dare), even top 3?  Apologies for the Blazing Saddle reference but I couldn't resist.


Scott Richey wrote on May 01, 2019 at 3:05 pm
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Scottie R,

Great handle. Has a nice ring to it.

When it comes to Illinois basketball in the 2019-20 season, I can see why people are feeling optimistic. I get into that more in this week's "Inside Illini Basketball" podcast. A rotation of Ayo Dosunmu, Trent Frazier, Andres Feliz, Tevian Jones, Alan Griffin, Giorgi Bezhanishvili and Kofi Cockburn (plus some Da'Monte Williams and maybe even TJ Holyfield) should be able to win more than 12 games. That is, to me, certainly a team that can finish in the top half of the Big Ten.

But the top three? I would still say Michigan State and Maryland are 1-2 in the Big Ten right now, and Michigan, Iowa, Ohio State and Purdue still might be better, too. And if not better on paper, then building off what were certainly more successful 2018-19 seasons. That would have the Illini seventh, but having to contend with Wisconsin and Penn State for that last spot in the top half of the conference. 

John Anderson wrote on May 01, 2019 at 3:05 pm

Questions about the basketball managers. What are their duties? How do they get chosen? Are they allowed to participate in practice? Do they travel with the team? Is it a paid position? How many hours do they put in? Do they have to be students? Are there limits on how many there can be?

Scott Richey wrote on May 01, 2019 at 3:05 pm
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Thanks to the national champion Illinois managers appearing on Monday Night SportsTalk a few weeks ago, I actually have some answers to your questions. You can listen to them here for a full accounting of what they do in case I miss something.

The Illinois managers have a wide range of duties. They help with all facets of practice, including getting the gym at Ubben set up before each practice starts. They also help run drills during practice. They're also the on-call rebounders for the players if they're available. Some managers work solely with video coordinator Patrick Schulte helping piece together the Illini's own practice and game video and the video of other teams they use to scout.

New managers are chosen in the fall after the school year begins. Basically between the end of August and into September before practices offically start in October. One thing outgoing senior manager Josh Larson said was volunteering to work Illinois' team and individual camps during the summer helped him get an in with the program. 

I believe there are about a dozen total mangers, including floor managers and video managers. There aren't any limits to how many managers a team can have. A smaller number (between six and eight, I think) travel with the team for road games. 

Don't think it's a paid position, although they put in a ton of hours. Basically, any time the players are at Ubben, managers are there, too. They're basically all on hand for practice (in the morning this past season), and they'll get there before it starts to set up and stay after the players are gone to get everything put away. All of the managers aren't there all day since they're students, too, but it seems like there's at least a couple at Ubben the whole day. And, yes, I'm pretty certain they have to be students.

Again, check out the podcast linked above. Larson, Patrick Althoff and Blake Woodard all did a good job breaking down what life as a manager is like.

Illini Basketball Fan wrote on May 01, 2019 at 3:05 pm

Scott -

It just seems like as if Underwood/Illinois never land some basketball recruits. I know we just signed Kofi. Exactly how far behind is Illinois in recruiting 2019/2020 recruits compared to other B10 counterparts or across the national landscape of P5 recruiting? Does Underwood really have to catch up? Or is he doing the right thing?  What's the new 'normal' for recruiting these days?  What's the +/- of Illinois having a full roster by June 1st? If not, should fans be worried?


Scott Richey wrote on May 01, 2019 at 3:05 pm
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Illini Basketball Fan,

Here's the thing about the way Brad Underwood approaches recruiting. He's going to offer a lot of guys. At last count (my count), Underwood offered 63 players in the 2019 class. He got two in Kofi Cockburn and Bernard Kouma. Even if he filled all three scholarships with high school seniors in the 2019 class, that still would have been just 4.7 percent of offered players. Perhaps you remember guys like Ayo Dosunmu and Giorgi Bezhanishvili. The co-MOPs of the 2018-19 season. He got both those guys, too, so I don't really follow your thinking of "Underwood/Illinois never land some basketball recruits."

That said, Illinois' 2019 class ranks 11th in the Big Ten per 247Sports and ninth per Rivals. It's on the small size with just two guys, but Michigan, Indiana and Iowa all have higher-ranked classes with two commits apiece. Underwood, of course, doesn't give a you know what about those rankings.

When it comes to 2020 recruiting, seven Big Ten already have at least one commitment. Illinois isn't one of them. Nobody has a five-star prospect yet, but Michigan, Michigan State and Nebraska have a four-star apiece. More recruiting is done in the spring, but it wouldn't be a terrible thing for Illinois to actually have at least one 2020 recruit sign this coming November. 

You could argue Illinois has as full a roster as necessary right now and not wait until June 1. Assuming Bernard Kouma still signs, that's 12 scholarship players. Even though Underwood likes to play a deep rotation, he's not going to play 12 guys. Having that 13th scholarship available now (for, say, TJ Holyfield) is a good thing, and if it's still open in June (potentially for a transfer that might have to sit to play), well, that's not a bad thing either.

IllinoisFanSinceTheSpoon wrote on May 01, 2019 at 3:05 pm

Hey Scott,

Is TJ Holyfield overhyped? Out all yr., yet KU, TTech, others all in. That said, do the Illini have a chance? Does the fact Holyfield knows BU hurt or help? Kinda of kidding! Any other offers out that are under the radar?

Scott Richey wrote on May 01, 2019 at 4:05 pm
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I think the hype around Stephen F. Austin transfer TJ Holyfield is right where it should be for the three teams he's deciding among for the final season of his college career. All three, Illinois included, can use what he brings. Adding a player on the transfer market can be a bit of a crapshoot, but Holyfield's profile (last year's injury aside) seems to be a common one teams look for to fill out their roster.

Holyfield's career numbers at SFA won't blow anybody away, but he can fit a roster with his combination of size, athleticism and skill set. At 6-foot-8 and 227 pounds, Holyfield can join any high major frontcourt and provide a dynamic presence as a solid rebounder and supplemental shot blocker. He does just enough of the latter to be a little more intriguing. Holyfield's ability to stretch the floor — he shot 41 percent from three-point range as a junior and is a career 38 percent shooter from deep — is the icing on the cake.

Sticking with the Marcus Jackson approach to covering recruiting, I'll tell you that Illinois has a 33.3 percent chance to land Holyfield. My former colleague would tell you it's 50-50 (either a yes or no), but I go that one step further with the math. Holyfield is down to three teams, and Illinois could be the one he chooses. So I'm telling you there's a chance, and a chance that's pretty good giving he knows exactly who Brad Underwood is as a coach, the system he would run if he came to Champaign and the fact there is playing time to be had with the Illini. Of course, the same is true at Texas Tech and Kansas, so Illinois getting the final visit to hammer home all its positives might be the difference maker.

Beyond Holyfield, junior college guard Tomas Woldetensae and 2019 recruit Olivier Robinson-Nkamhoua, I don't know that there's anybody else currently on Illinois' radar. If Holyfield were to pick the Illini, which they want to happen, that would max them out on scholarships. At least for now.

Illini Stuck in Wi wrote on May 01, 2019 at 4:05 pm

Hi Scott, 

Thanks for chats! I really appreciate what you and Mr. Asmussen do for Illini nation.

Recruiting is fluid, I get it, but what is interesting is that with the previous staff under Groce and current staff with Underwood is the amount of leaked info out there. Maybe its just me, but it felt that during Groce's tenure there was a lot of info out there in terms of players they were recruiting or the next personto commit, but with Underwood - we know very little. is this accurate? Is Underwood more reserved during your interviews or even after games/practices? I know they cant talk about players they are recruiting but we know they have methods to get info out in the public domain. 

Thanks again. 

Scott Richey wrote on May 01, 2019 at 4:05 pm
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Illini Stuck in WI,

Glad you enjoy the chats. I'll pass along your kind words to Bob, too, since he's sitting just two desks down the row from me right now. Thanks for reading and submitting a question this week. 

Here's the main difference between how John Groce and Brad Underwood recruit. Underwood simply offers a ton more players. I mentioned in a previous post that Underwood offered 63 players in the 2019 class. Illinois' 2020 recruiting board already has 46 players with offers on it, there are 16 in the Class of 2021 and even four among 2022 recruits (who just finished their freshman year of high school). 

Under Groce, there were simply fewer potential recruits to track. With Underwood, there's a better idea of the type of players he's looking for because you can suss out trends and themes by the type of players he's offering.

And sometimes, Illinois keeps things close to the vest with different recruitments. Under-the-radar guys the Illini coaching staff have evaluated and like more than other coaching staffs (like Giorgi Bezhanishvili and especially Bernard Kouma) become the more surprise commitments.

illiniFL wrote on May 01, 2019 at 4:05 pm

I know we're going to be good with basketball next year so no question there... hello ncaa champions 2020 :)

I'm more concernred about football, with the untransfers lately... What does your crystal ball say for the rest of the year regarding football?


PS this captcha thing is really annoying, why twice?

Scott Richey wrote on May 01, 2019 at 4:05 pm
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My Illinois football crystal ball is pretty hazy when it comes to projecting more success than the Illini had last season. The quarterback situation, to me, doesn't bode well. I know there's still four months until the 2019 season opener, but I wasn't particularly blown away this spring by the quarterbacks and count me among the small group that's not ready to annoint Isaiah Williams as the savior of Illinois football just yet. There were also only two defenses worse than Illinois' last season (Oregon State and UConn). That obviously leaves room for improvement, but how much can be expected?

Looking at the 2019 schedule, I can see another four-win season as a distinct possibility. I could make a case for five wins, but I'm not sure I can get to six. Is five wins in year four for Lovie Smith really enough considering this is almost 100 percent his team at this point? Because four isn't.



Carl Hartke wrote on May 01, 2019 at 4:05 pm

With the current players on your roster, do you thinking running the Flex offense would better suit your bigs down low?  It would open up the middle for cuts to the basket as well as alley-oops?  I think in my own opinion that you have the horses you need to run an effective and electric Flex offense.  What are your thoughts??????

Scott Richey wrote on May 01, 2019 at 4:05 pm
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I don't know that the flex offense is the answer. Pretty much nobody in college basketball runs it anymore, and the last big name coach that did was Gary Williams. Sure, he won a national championship at Maryland, but he also had legit pros on that team (Juan Dixon and Chris Wilcox plus Lonny Baxter). An easy way to beat the flex is to switch every screen, which basically every team either does or can do because position-less basketball is a thing.

Anyway, the way Brad Underwood utilizes the high (pinch) post with his big men opens up the middle of the court for cuts and alley oops. Have the Illini always cut hard or thrown the best lob passes? No, but that's part of the offense.

Scott Richey wrote on May 01, 2019 at 4:05 pm
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That's it for today's chat, which was a good one for the offseason. Of course, college basketball is a 24/7/365 world , so the offseason happens in theory these days. Thanks to everybody that submitted questions or followed along. Hopefully you do the same next week. The chat should return to its normal 12:30 p.m. Wednesday time slot unless some other Illini coverage tears me away from my desk. But it will happen nonetheless.

Until then, enjoy the week!