On the surface, the 2015 class is representative of everything that has gone wrong for Illinois in recruiting in the post-2005 era. The painful script is familiar to close followers of Illinois basketball, but I’ll spell it out here for the benefit of fans of other Big Ten teams.
Here, in a nutshell, is how a once-proud basketball program finds itself considered amongst the likes of Nebraska and Rutgers:
- Whiff on a top target in painful fashion (Jalen Brunson)
- Fail to secure a talented PG at all (see Brunson, but also Jawun Evans, Shake Milton, and plenty of others in years prior)
- A once-highly regarded recruit, typically from the Chicago area, proves unready for the Big Ten (D.J. Williams, in the mold of Mike Shaw and Crandall Head)
- A top-100 recruit transfers to DePaul (Jalen Coleman-Lands, like Myke Henry before him)
Not counting Kipper Nichols, who arrived at Illinois only after a detour to Tulane and had to sit out a year, the only player remaining from the recruiting class of 2015 is Aaron Jordan. A borderline Top 100 recruit in his own right, Jordan never found his way under former head coach John Groce. In fact, he took a step backwards last year, averaging less than 7 minutes per game after contributing as a freshman. Despite the modest success during his freshman campaign, however, Jordan could only be viewed as a one-dimensional offensive player: over 68% of his shots came from beyond the arc. Though he hit at a decent clip of 33%, Jordan didn’t appear to have a future in the program after Groce was fired.
But while his former classmates D.J. Williams (unsurprisingly) and Jalen Coleman-Lands (somewhat surprisingly) bolted from the program, Jordan stayed, wagering on himself after perhaps taking notice of Brad Underwood’s reputation for getting the most out of his players. That wager is paying early dividends, as Jordan has already surpassed his points total from last season while playing only 34 minutes over two games. Underwood has praised his preparation and defense (the two ways to a true “Hoops Guy’s” heart) and mentioned the need to find more playing time for Jordan in his most recent post-game presser.
At 6’5’ 210, Jordan is a floor-spacing small forward who, conventional wisdom would dictate, needs to be accompanied by two of the Illini’s three true frontcourt players at all times. However Jordan’s hard-nosed defense could allow Underwood to pair Jordan with 3 guards and a forward for a few minutes per game, taking advantage of a strength on Illinois’ roster rather than being hampered by their lack of height.
One player that could be hurt by Jordan’s emergence is Mark Alstork. The graduate transfer has underwhelmed so far in Champaign stretching back to preseason play. Many observers assumed Alstork would be a prolific scorer, coming off a season in which he averaged over 19 points per game at Wright State and stepping into an inexperienced roster. A career 37.3% 3-point shooter, Alstork hasn’t found his stroke this year, starting 1-7 from deep and 5-15 overall. He was able to bully his way through an inferior Southern team for 10 looks from the charity stripe (hitting 9), but was frustrated during a tougher matchup against UT-Martin, settling for 3s and failing to get to the line once. Alstork is skilled and experienced, but will have to continue to adapt his style of play to the up-tempo ball reversal offense that Underwood is looking to install in Champaign.
Despite some struggled, the early returns from Champaign are overwhelmingly good. Jordan’s emergence should take some of the pressure off of Illinois’ thin frontcourt. Leron Black is coming off a career night. Michael Finke has yet to hit his stride but has clearly responded to Brad Underwood’s pleas (shouts?) for better hustle. Upset with his preparation, Underwood has yet to fully work sophomore forward Kipper Nichols into the rotation. The Illini will need much bigger contributions from Nichols going forward, and Underwood clearly recognizes his potential as well as his teams glaring hole at forward.
Solid performances from unexpected places, as in the case of Aaron Jordan, can have benefits up and down the roster, and thus expect Underwood to ease Nichols into the rotation. Even if Jordan can’t sustain his hot start, the Illini will be better off for him sticking around. The 2015 class may yet to have something to offer to the next era of Illini Basketball.