NCB On The Trail: Illinois Fighting Illini

Biancardi's Breakdown: Leron Black 

February, 3, 2014
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One-time Baylor commit and current Illinois signee Leron Black (Memphis, Tenn./White Station) has had a very productive senior season. His high school team at White Station plays a national schedule and he recently dropped 25 points in a win against powerful rival Memphis Hamilton in the Penny Hardaway Classic on ESPNU.

Let’s take an in-depth look at the No. 11 power forward and No. 43 overall player in the ESPN 100 and what makes him such an elite prospect.

Plainfield East junior shooting guard Aaron Jordan committed to Illinois on Saturday.

Jordan, a 6-foot-4 1/2, 180-pound guard, chose the Illini over Butler, Creighton, Indiana, Northwestern, Purdue, Xavier and Wisconsin.

Jordan committed to Illinois coach John Groce after the Illini’s win over Penn State on Saturday. The program was also celebrating the 25th anniversary of the Flyin’ Illini on Saturday.

“I committed today because it was legends day,” Jordan said in a phone interview. “Just looking back on their history, I want to be a legend for Illinois one day. It was motivating. I want to fill in their shoes.

“It was early, but I felt the time was right. I wanted to make my decision today.”

ESPN Recruiting Nation scout/analyst Reggie Rankin says Jordan was a quality addition for Illinois.

“He’s an excellent shooter with good size, should be very productive in the Illinois system,” Rankin said. “He stretches the floor with his shot-making ability and will keep defenses honest in their ball-screen actions. He’s very skilled. He needs to add strength, but he has excellent upside.”

Jordan is Illinois’ second Class of 2015 recruit. He joins Simeon junior forward D.J. Williams in the recruiting class.
The early signing period will officially come to an end in a matter of hours. Before the clock strikes midnight, we look at some of the biggest winners and losers of the past eight days.

Winners

[+] EnlargeJahlil Okafor
Jeff Hinds/adidasDuke is a big winner with the addition of Jahlil Okafor, the nations top-ranked overall prospect,
Duke
When the nation’s top-ranked overall prospect and best point guard coordinate a dual announcement on national TV and flip over your hat, it’s a win. Duke might not officially have the top-ranked recruiting class in the country just yet, but there’s no denying it scored the biggest prize.


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Four of top 10 to announce on Friday

November, 14, 2013
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Just three days after their current prized freshmen, Andrew Wiggins and Jabari Parker, squared off in Chicago, Bill Self and Mike Krzyzewski will do battle once again on Friday.

This time, it's in pursuit of the next crop of program-changing recruits, as the presumed package deal of No. 1 Jahlil Okafor and No. 4 Tyus Jones is widely expected to choose between the Jayhawks and Blue Devils after visiting Kansas, Duke and Baylor this fall.

Okafor and Jones will make their decisions live on ESPNU at 4:05 p.m. ET, during a signing period special that also will include the announcements of No. 3 Cliff Alexander and No. 9 Stanley Johnson.

[+] EnlargeTyus Jones
Paul Biancardi/ESPNTyus Jones, the nation's No. 1 point guard, will choose between Duke and Kansas.
More importantly, adding a tandem as talented and cohesive as Okafor and Jones to the type of already strong foundations that Krzyzewski and Self have in place would make either team an instant contender for a national championship in 2015, regardless of whom they lose to the NBA this spring.

The implications don’t stop there, though, with added layers heightening the intrigue for both programs. A win for Duke could impact the decision of Justise Winslow, creating the potential for an even bigger package deal. Meanwhile, Kansas is also a finalist for Alexander, giving it the chance to score three of the top four prospects in the country in a matter of minutes.

Equally relevant is what happens to the program that loses on Friday. Both have gone all in on the potential package deal and lost out on other prospects as a result. Kansas would have an opportunity for quick redemption should Alexander’s decision go its way. Otherwise, Myles Turner would become absolutely critical for both programs, as both the big prize of the late signing period as well as the last remaining big man capable of making an immediate impact.

While Friday is likely to be a huge victory for either Kansas or Duke, it could be an equally monumental day for Illinois. Second-year coach John Groce already has built a top 15 national recruiting class, but a pledge from Alexander would skyrocket the Illini toward the top of the list. It also would give Groce the type of early momentum boost that could pay lasting dividends as Illinois looks to make a habit of recruiting successfully against college basketball’s superpowers.

An Alexander pledge to Memphis or DePaul seems less likely at this point, but it would be no less significant for either program. Josh Pastner continues to solidify himself as one of the nation’s elite recruiters, regardless of level, and Oliver Purnell looks to get the type of signature score that can legitimize his budding DePaul program on the national level.

Arizona also has a chance to punctuate an already strong class, where the addition of a true alpha dog such as Johnson not only would give the Wildcats the type of signature recruit they have been looking for in this class but also a notable recruiting win over Kentucky. The Wildcats, meanwhile, are looking to add one final score in hopes of maintaining their status atop the national rankings for the fifth time in the past six years.

It will all play out live on ESPNU as we’ll watch four of the most anticipated commitments in the 2014 class go down in only 30 minutes, with the implications sure to shift the landscape of college basketball for the 2014-2015 season.

The early signing period arrives Wednesday, marking the first time 2014 prospects can officially sign their national letters of intent, turning previously unbinding verbal commitments into contractually binding scholarship agreements.

Here are 10 storylines to watch for during the eight-day signing period:

Jahlil Okafor
AP Photo/Damen Jackson via Triple Play New MediaJahlil Okafor is hoping to sign during the early signing period. Where will he end up?
1. Package-deal decision day
Word is that Jahlil Okafor and Tyus Jones are both hoping to sign during the early period, and that means the country’s biggest package deal should have a decision within days. All indications are that the duo still intends to go to school together, but the final destination has become unclear of late. Duke has long since been considered the front-runner, but there’s been growing chatter for Kansas, especially as it pertains to Okafor. Baylor is the dark horse, and while nobody seems to be talking about the Bears anymore, neither prospect has said they’re out of the running just yet.

2. Awaiting word from Alexander
We’re anticipating an announcement from Cliff Alexander, the nation’s third-ranked prospect. The 6-foot-8 big man took the nation by storm during the recent EYBL season and picked up offers from some of college basketball’s most prestigious programs in the process. Four of those remain in the hunt for his services. While Illinois and DePaul have been the perceived favorites, Kansas and Memphis are in the mix as well. Look for Alexander to trim one of those four off his list before his announcement -- and ultimately make his choice from a list of three final schools.

3. Early or late? That is the question
While Okafor, Jones, and Alexander are all expected to make their decisions in time to sign during the early signing period (that is, on or before Nov. 20), there is another group of prospects we still don’t know what to expect from. Justise Winslow just took his last visit, and he could be ready to decide. William Lee is another ESPN 100 prospect who could very well be ready in the coming days. Stanley Johnson was once targeting a January decision, but he now appears to be on the fence, as there has been mounting speculation that he could abandon those original plans in time to sign early.

4. What’s left for the spring?
With 87 players in the current ESPN 100 already committed and at least four more expected to make their decisions in time to sign early, we’re expecting over 90 percent of the current ESPN 100 to officially be off the board within the next 10 days. That’s an almost unprecedented percentage, leaving very little left on the table for the spring’s late signing period. The big prizes for those playing the waiting game are likely to be Myles Turner, Rashad Vaughn and JaQuan Lyle, along with any of the previously mentioned top prospects who ultimately decide against early signatures.

5. Care for a contingency plan
With so few prospects remaining on the board following this period, the major question is what happens to the programs that have gone the distance with top remaining prospects -- only to end up missing out on them. The best examples are Duke and Kansas. The Blue Devils and Jayhawks have gone head-to-head for Okafor and Jones and have passed on other talented guys as a result. Now they’re in a spot where the consequences of losing out on Okafor and Jones could be especially high, with no good contingency plans left on the board unless they’re able to score Turner, who isn’t likely to be excited about being perceived as anybody’s runner-up.

6. Competition for Kentucky
Kentucky currently has the top-ranked recruiting class in the country. If the Wildcats can hold on to that spot, it would be the fifth time in John Calipari’s six years in Lexington he has secured that distinction. The reality, however, is that it may be unlikely. And while Kentucky’s class is undeniably loaded, the 2014 group will be remembered as much for the guys who passed on the Wildcats -- Okafor, Alexander, Jones, Emmanuel Mudiay, Kelly Oubre and James Blackmon Jr. among others -- perhaps signaling a decline in what has been one of the most dominant recruiting periods for any program in recent history.

7. The Big East is back (or never left)
If this season's recruiting class is any indication, the demise of the Big East has been somewhat exaggerated. While conference realignment might have forever changed one of the country’s most historic conferences, it apparently has not done much to hurt the brand. Xavier, Seton Hall and Georgetown have all put together top-10 classes, and Marquette and Providence are not far behind. With five different programs among the top-20 classes in the country and a total of 15 ESPN 100 prospects having already popped for the Big East, the league is recruiting as well as any in the country.

8. What’s the Matta with this class?
Ohio State has the second-ranked recruiting class in the country, a group loaded with four ESPN 100 prospects and another big man who is just on the cusp of that list. Yet nobody seems to be talking about the Buckeyes. With so much attention being paid to the potential classes at Kansas, Duke and Kentucky, Ohio State has flown under the radar. The reality is that coach Thad Matta did his work early and did it well. D’Angelo Russell, Keita Bates-Diop and Jae’Sean Tate are all coming in next year, and Payton Dastrup is essentially joining the Class of 2016 after he takes a two-year Mormon mission. The Buckeyes have solidified their future as well as any program in America.

9. Talking about the Tar Heels
Roy Williams and North Carolina are in a similar situation. They have a trio of ESPN 100 prospects on board for next season, all ranked among the top 15 prospects in the country. However, because all three were already committed by last May, the Tar Heels haven’t been at the forefront of any recent recruiting headlines. It’s a mistake to sleep on them, though, as they have one of the country’s best scorers on the wing in Justin Jackson, a swingman with elite athleticism; an alpha-male mentality in Theo Pinson; and one of the most dependable point guards in the country in Joel Berry.

10. Mid-major impact
A quick glance at the class rankings will show that the mid-majors are once again well-represented among this year’s top recruiting classes. San Diego State, VCU and UNLV have all asserted themselves as national recruiters. Steve Fisher’s four-man class is headlined by a trio of ESPN 100 products in Malik Pope, Trey Kell and Zylan Cheatham, while Terry Larrier and Mike Gilmore lead a similar four-man group for Shaka Smart and VCU. Dave Rice and the Rebels have one of the best incoming frontcourt tandems in the country in Goodluck Okonoboh and Dwayne Morgan.
Want to ask ESPN RecruitingNation national recruiting director Paul Biancardi a question about basketball recruiting? Tweet it to @PaulBiancardi using the hashtag #AskCoachB.



I don't know if they have the edge, but I do know the Illini have a legitimate shot at landing Cliff Alexander (Chicago/Curie). John Groce has been playing catch-up with Alexander, No. 3 in the ESPN 100, since this is only his second year as head coach and he has done a tremendous job making inroads with him.

It is so important that as a program you are in the picture when the prospect is coming down the stretch. It appears that Alexander is getting closer to the decision-making part of his recruiting process. It looks like DePaul, Kansas, Memphis and Illinois will battle it out for this athletic and physically-gifted power forward. Alexander has been to Champaign numerous times and, most importantly, he has been there for an official visit, which makes the Illini a real option. Keep in mind that his girlfriend attends Kansas and also that he had a great visit to Memphis and loves Josh Pastner and his staff. DePaul's head coach Oliver Purnell has done a great job of trying to convince him to stay at home and be a program changer.

Stay tuned and stay connected to RecruitingNation for the latest on where Alexander lands.

Scout's take: D.J. Williams to Illinois 

November, 5, 2013
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ESPN 60 small forward D.J. Williams (Chicago/Simeon) committed to Illinois over a combination of offers and serious interest from Florida, Providence, SMU, DePaul, Michigan State and Georgetown, among others.

Williams, the nation's No. 29 overall prospect in the Class of 2015 and No. 2 in the state of Illinois, is a huge get for coach John Groce and his staff simply because this four-star junior is a nationally ranked prospect from the talent-rich city of Chicago, which is the main recruiting territory for the Fighting Illini.


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Simeon's Williams commits to Illinois

November, 5, 2013
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Chicago Simeon junior forward D.J. Williams committed to Illinois on Tuesday.

Williams, a 6-foot-7, 203-pound small forward, chose the Illini over DePaul, Florida, Georgetown, Providence, Purdue and SMU.

“From my first time on campus, I was just thinking it was the right move,” Williams said by phone on Tuesday morning. “I’ve liked [Illinois] coach [John] Groce on and off the court. It’s also close to my home. My family can watch me play. The Big Ten is also one of the best conferences in the country."

Williams is ranked No. 28 in ESPN’s Class of 2015 and is the highest-ranked recruit Groce has landed since being hired in March of 2012. Illinois has two top-50 recruits committed in the Class of 2014 and signed two top-100 recruits in the Class of 2013.

ESPN RecruitingNation scout/analyst Reggie Rankin thought Williams could be an impact player in the Big Ten and was another significant recruit for the Illini.

“I think he’s a wing player that can score,” Rankin said. “He’s got great length. He’s got a terrific mid-range game. He’s active and he’s got tremendous upside. He’ll be an excellent wing scorer in the Big Ten. That’s a tremendous get for them, especially from another instate, Chicago high school power.

“I think that now Groce has been there a year and he’s more established that these things are going to happen more consistently. It may not be a steady stream, but I think he’ll be able to get high-level underclassmen early because they’re established there as a team and are doing well and are projected to do well. They also have an excellent class in play in 2014. I think it’s part of Groce and his staff being more established and working their home turf, which is a tremendous recruiting ground for them.”

Williams was optimistic he could attract other top players from his class and help build Illinois into a championship contender.

“I can now start recruiting for the other players to kind of join me,” Williams said. “Illinois is rolling really good. With the players they have coming in and more from my year, I think we can make a big run in the NCAA tournament.”

Williams is the third player from Simeon to commit to Groce. He previously signed shooting guard Kendrick Nunn and point guard Jaylon Tate from Simeon. Both are expected to play for the Illini as freshmen this season.

Simeon coach Robert Smith said he was proud to send players to Illinois.

“It’s one thing [former Simeon coach Bob] Hambric talked to me about when I was younger, about keeping guys at home is always big for Simeon, Illinois and the state,” Smith said. “I think it’s a great opportunity. Our basketball is too good in the state to have everyone leave for other schools. That’s my drive to let other people and coaches know to try to keep our guys home. It’s not for everyone. It’s best for some players to go to Kentucky, Duke and North Carolina because it doesn’t fit here, but we should try to make our basketball rich and good in Illinois.”

Williams has made a number of unofficial visits to Illinois during the past few years. His most recent visit came during Illinois’ football homecoming on Oct. 26.

Illinois assistant coach Paris Parham was the lead recruiter on Williams.

Illinois is also among the final four schools for Chicago Curie senior forward Cliff Alexander, who is ranked No. 3 in the Class of 2014 by ESPN. He will announce between DePaul, Illinois, Kansas and Memphis on ESPNU on Nov. 15.

“Williams’ commitment certainly can’t hurt with Alexander,” Rankin said. “It shows another Chicago high-level player has earned their trust to go to Illinois.”

Williams is Illinois’ first Class of 2015 recruit.
The best power forward in the Class of 2014 has completed his official visits. ESPN 100 No. 3 overall Cliff Alexander (Chicago/Curie) visited in-state Illinois this past weekend, completing his five NCAA allowed paid visits.


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Top names taking visits this weekend 

October, 25, 2013
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Three of the top four players in the ESPN 100 are making official visits this weekend as the recruiting process hits the home stretch and the early signing period approaches.

Jahlil Okafor (Chicago/Whitney Young) and Tyus Jones (Apple Valley, Minn./Apple Valley) are scheduled to be at Duke along with Justise Winslow (Houston/St. John’s). Okafor, the No. 1 overall player in the ESPN 100, and the best low-post scoring threat in high school basketball continues to evaluate programs along with Jones, the best point guard in the class. This dynamic duo wants to play together in college and they are continuing to figure out what program is best for them.

Winslow is a high-level glue guy and arguably the best perimeter defender in the class and will accompany them making this weekend in Durham the biggest recruiting weekend in the country thus far. Okafor and Jones have already officially visited Baylor and Kansas, so if the package deal holds, one of these three programs will sign the best point guard and low-post player in the country. Okafor and Jones could split and Okafor is considering Kentucky while Jones is not and and Jones is looking at hometown Minnesota while Okafor is not considering the Gophers. Winslow has officially been to Florida, UCLA and Arizona and, after the Duke trip, is headed to Standford on Nov 7. Winslow has already unofficially visited Texas A&M as well.

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Under-the-radar recruiting powers 

October, 22, 2013
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When it comes to recruiting, there are certain superpower programs that are simply on a different playing field from everyone else in college basketball. Programs such as Kentucky, Duke, North Carolina and Kansas are the most obvious there. Those teams are national brands with Hall of Fame coaches, rabid fan bases and a history of success at the highest levels.

But there are always surprising teams that can rise up and compete with the big boys. Change and evolution are inevitable in the world of recruiting. Whether that’s thanks to a dynamic coach, a deep run in the NCAA tournament or an impressive crop of local prospects, teams can quickly establish themselves as forces on the recruiting trail.

With that in mind, we asked our team of RecruitingNation experts to predict which under-the-radar team could become a recruiting power in the next few years.

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Possible domino effect for top four 

October, 18, 2013
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Jahlil Okafor, Tyus JonesESPN, Icon SMIThe decisions of Jahlil Okafor and Tyus Jones -- who might be a tandem in college -- will have a likely ripple effect among other top prospects.
Many times in recruiting, one player's choices directly affects another. Players and coaches all have a plan when they start the recruiting process, but that plan can quickly change. Let's take a look at a few possible scenarios that could take place among the top four prospects in the ESPN 100. The only thing I base this on is my experience of a college coach and knowledge of how quickly things can change.

Let's have a little fun with these possible recruiting domino effects:

For Jahlil Okafor and Tyus Jones: I believe that Kansas and Duke are the major players here. Both are visiting Kansas this weekend and Duke next weekend, along with Justise Winslow, who will be on the trip to Durham only. Okafor and Jones could go to Kansas and Duke together. They also could play together at Baylor, another place they have already visited together. But that would be the biggest stretch of the three schools.

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USA developmental team camp recap 

October, 6, 2013
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COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. -- The USA Basketball Developmental National Team minicamp featured some of the nation's best high school talent representing the classes of 2014, 2015 and 2016. Head coach Don Showalter and his staff put the players through numerous intense and competitive drills, controlled scrimmages and game situations in this four-workout, two-day minicamp.

Note: ESPN 100 No. 1 overall player Jahlil Okafor didn't play on Day 1 after rolling his ankle during a one-on-one in the post drill.

Here are a few players who were impressive this weekend from the ESPN 100, 60 and 25 rankings.

ESPN 100 Standouts

Best Motor
Myles Turner (Bedford, Texas/Trinity)
C, 6-foot-11, 225 pounds
Considering: Kansas, Ohio State, Texas, Duke, Arizona, Kentucky, Louisville, Oklahoma State

Turner's talent and shot blocking is well-documented, but his consistent motor also makes the big fella special. Regardless of the outcome of the possession, Turner never stops playing. He runs, jumps and competes at a high level, which makes him stand out.


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Scout's Take: Illini score with PG Snider 

September, 12, 2013
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Illinois coach John Groce landed his second ESPN 100 prospect when point guard Quentin Snider (Louisville, Ky./Ballard) picked the Fighting Illini over UCLA on Thursday.

Snider, No. 28 in the ESPN 100 and the No. 7 point guard, decommitted from hometown national champion Louisville back in July and many elite programs, including Michigan State and Connecticut in addition to the Fighting Illini and Bruins, put the full court press on the four star true point guard. When it was all said and done, Groce and his staff earned the commitment from the second best player from the state of Kentucky and the city of Louisville (only Ohio State commit D'Angelo Russell ranks higher).

Why did he pick Illinois and what will he bring to the Fighting Illini? Let's break it down.

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#AskCoachB: Illini still rising?

September, 12, 2013
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Want to ask ESPN RecruitingNation national recruiting director Paul Biancardi a question about basketball recruiting? Tweet it to @PaulBiancardi using the hashtag #AskCoachB.

Illinois has been building under Groce and when you first hire a head coach the fruits of his recruiting efforts usually come over time. Last year Groce and his staff put together a five-man group that has both quality and quantity. With two top forwards committed -- ESPn No. 36 Leron Black and Michael Finke and the possibility of No. 28 Quentin Snider (he is deciding Thursday night between UCLA and Illinois ). If that happens it could make things very interesting, because every great big man wants to play with a high-level point guard.

Not sure how Black really affects Alexander because you can always play with two forwards and Black is really good. If Alexander were to attend Illinois it could affect other big men such as Austin Colbert. The fighting Illini have a chance at Alexander and they are clearly in the mix but are in a massive recruiting battle with Michigan State, Kansas, Kentucky, Memphis and Arizona. I believe they are a little bit down the line on this list.

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