Plenty of question marks loom for Illinois basketball as we get closer to the 2015-16 college basketball season. Can the Illini stay healthy enough to return to the NCAA tournament after a two-year drought? Who emerges from the large group of newcomers that includes graduate transfers and highly-touted freshmen?
The on-court aspect head coach John Groce and his program have to deal with is fascinating enough but there are also some questions when it comes to the future of Illinois basketball recruiting.
With the state of Illinois -- and the Midwest in general -- being significantly down from a talent perspective in the class of 2016, Groce and his staff have had to get creative when it comes to recruiting that group of players.
Illinois currently owns a class of 2016 commitment from Wisconsin native and three-star point guard Te'Jon Lucas. Adding the late-blooming Lucas was a nice move by Illinois since point guard options were quickly drying up and Lucas showed some upside after a promising summer on the grassroots circuit. With an ability to run an offense while also creating his own shot, Lucas should fit what Illinois looks for in guards.
What comes after Lucas in that class is where it all starts to get murky.
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In addition to Lucas, Illinois would like to use one or two more scholarships in the class to find a big man or a wing. Australian 6-foot-9 power forward Harry Froling is a target for Illinois and they've even flown across the world to see him in person. Adding an international player like Froling would be a great addition to the roster, but it might be a little while before Froling figures out the next step in a complicated worldwide recruiting process. A source close to Froling told CSN that he's expected to announce his official visits in the next two weeks and Illinois is in the running for one of those visits. Getting Froling on campus for an official will likely be a key for whichever schools lands him.
After Froling, Illinois is essentially starting anew when it comes to class of 2016 prospects. The Illinois coaching staff will search near-and-far for more options who emerge this season. They'll also look at potential transfers and there is also the realistic possibility of rolling a scholarship over for an important class of 2017.
The class of 2016 is a down year in the Midwest, but 2017, particularly in Illinois, looks very promising. And Illinois has been very aggressive recruiting the Land of Lincoln when it comes to the junior class.
With five or six potential scholarships in the class of 2017, Illinois will look to add one player for each position on the floor as they've already started to host a lot of unofficial visitors from the group.
Illinois has been active recruiting in-state targets like Evanston's Nojel Eastern, Stevenson's Justin Smith, Belleville Althoff's Jordan Goodwin, Belleville East's Javon Pickett, Peoria Manuel's DaMonte Williams, Bloomington Central Catholic's Charles Payton and Larkin's Christian Negron. Former East St. Louis big man Jeremiah Tilmon has also been to the Illinois campus and the staff will continue to recruit him heavily after transferring to La Lumiere in October. Former Willowbrook star Alonzo Verge was also being recruited by Illinois while he lived in the area, but it's hard to say if things will change in that one now that Verge has transferred to Arlington Country Day in Jacksonville, Florida.
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Groce and his staff know that a talented class of 2017 in Illinois is a hugely important and they've been quick to try to get those players to Champaign to check out campus.
The class of 2017 is an important one for the Illini, but the class of 2018 list is also starting to form. Among the main in-state targets include Champaign Central's Tim Finke, the younger brother of Illinois redshirt freshman forward Michael Finke, and Simeon point guard Kezo Brown.
Both Brown and Finke have shown some promising flashes early in their high school careers and Illinois has good recruiting connections to both the Finke family and Brown's high school.
The elephant in the room, of course, is that Illinois needs to make it back to the NCAA tournament and show recruits that the program is trending in the right direction. Top prospects like the players Illinois are recruiting expect to play in the spotlight of the sport.
All of that can take care of itself with some strong on-court results this season, but Illinois has at least put itself in the conversation for a lot of talented Illinois players in the next few classes.