With North Carolina’s win over Gonzaga earlier this month, the 2016-’17 college basketball season officially came to a close. And with that development, attention quickly turned to next season and, for our site, next year’s Big Ten.
In an effort to help with that transition, we are taking a look at some of the biggest offseason storylines for each team. As such, here are the three most important things for the Illinois Fighting Illini this offseason.
Three Key Offseason Storylines For Illinois:
1. What happens to the 2017 recruiting class?
A few weeks ago, I wrote about the biggest storylines facing the Big Ten during this spring and, to no surprise, this storyline also made the cut there as well. How the 2017 recruiting class shakes out for Illinois will have a huge impact for both the Illini and the Big Ten heading into next season.
While there’s no debating that former head coach John Groce struggled down the stretch, the one area where he left things in good shape was on the recruiting trail. He assembled an impressive 2017 class, highlighted by top 30 prospect Jeremiah Tilmon before being pushed out the door last month.
However, with Groce’s firing, both Tilmon and fellow 2017 commit Javon Pickett asked to be released from their NLIs. In what seemed like an instant, Illinois dropped from a nationally elite recruiting class to one that ranks No. 61 nationally.
The good news is that the story isn’t over quite yet. While landing a commitment from a player (in this case, players) that asked for a release isn’t an easy task, it’s not unprecedented. Additionally, Illinois may still end up pursuing some other late 2017 options, should the team’s primary options fall through.
Simply put, how the 2017 recruiting class shakes out for Illinois will be the single most important storyline of this offseason for the Illini. And it could arguably be the thing that defines new head coach Brad Underwood’s early tenure in Champaign.
2. Can Illinois find a star player?
Despite the recruiting attention, Illinois does, of course, return some key players from last season. Specifically, Leron Black, Jalen Coleman-Lands, and Te’Jon Lucas will all be looking to improve on their play from last season. None were outstanding, but all made sizable improvements during the season.
However, Illinois still needs to find a star.
With the loss of Malcolm Hill to graduation, the Illini will be without the team’s leading contributor from last season. It’s not impossible to win without an All-Big Ten caliber player, but it’s pretty difficult. As such, the search for the program’s next major contributor will have to begin in earnest this spring.
Unfortunately, at the moment, there is no clear option. Coleman-Lands had a great freshman season, but finished his sophomore season on the bench, Black has been inconsistent during his entire career, and Lucas showed promise in year one, but having a nice freshman season hardly guarantees anything. For proof, look no further than Coleman-Lands, who was probably even better as a freshman than Lucas.
The point here, simply put, is that Underwood and his staff need to take one of these three and turn them into a top-tier Big Ten player in the months to come. After all, no Illini player outside of Hill (now gone) even earned All-Big Ten Honorable Mention honors last season, let alone All-Big Ten honors. Illinois needs to find someone to do that next season, or it’s going to be a tough hill to climb for Underwood and the Illini.
3. Will the Illini close on any key transfers?
With the decommitments from Pickett and Tilmon, Illinois now finds itself with four open scholarships heading into the next season. As anyone who can do math can easily figure out, having more than 30 percent of your available scholarships open in the spring is, generally, not a great thing for your team’s chances.
The good news is that Underwood and his staff will have an opportunity to fill several of those scholarship openings on the transfer market. And no transfer options look better at the moment than Kansas’ Carlton Bragg and California’s Charlie Moore.
As Illinois fans will remember, Groce was heavily involved with both Bragg and Moore when they were high school recruits. Of course, Illinois just missed out on both as they decided to head elsewhere instead of joining the Illini.
But it looks like the tides could be changing now.
Admittedly, Bragg hasn’t done much as a college player. He played in less than 30 percent of Kansas’ minutes over the last two seasons. But his raw skillset and ceiling still make him an attractive prospect. Plus, being limited to the bench at Kansas isn’t exactly a terrible thing, considering the talent of the Jayhawks.
Moore, however, is a proven commodity. He played considerable minutes as a freshman for California last season, averaging 12.2 points and 3.5 assists per game and finishing as one of the Pac 12’s best freshmen last season.
The downside to these two is that both will have to sit out the 2017-’18 season before being eligible. In other words, neither could help Illinois during next season.
But, even with that knowledge, both would still be significant additions for Illinois. Not only would they improve the talent and experience on the roster considerably, but they would also help set up Underwood for a great sophomore season with the program. And that’s important, considering that a first season is almost always going to be an uphill battle for a new head coach.
The next few months are going to be incredibly interesting ones for Illinois and new head coach Brad Underwood. Considering the substantial roster transition occurring in Champaign this offseason, it’s hard to speculate as to what the Illini will look like next season. But if Underwood can hit the ground running, the potential is sky high for next year’s roster and the program’s ultimate destination with him at the helm.