In our inaugural basketball recruiting update, I'll take an in depth look at each new player from the 2014 recruiting class that will be donning the orange and blue next year.
Let's get started. Lots to cover. We will have five new eligible faces on the 2014-2015 roster (3 transfers and 2 freshman), each fulfilling an obvious need. I'll go through the list in the order of, what I feel is, each player's level of importance for next year's squad.
This year's Illini team has two very apparent weaknesses: one that's hovered over the team all season (three-point/perimeter shooting), and one that's just recently sprouted it's ugly head (rebounding). What good is a drive and kick offense if no player presents a consistent threat to make an outside shot? Other Big Ten teams have taken notice because it's certainly become more difficult for Rayvonte, Tracy, and Joe to get a clean lane to the basket for an easy dunk or layup. As for the rebounding, we're just being out-toughed and out-athleted right now. Next year brings change in both areas.
So, without further ado, the first player on my list is that shooter we're lacking.
Aaron Cosby: Before we delve into the potential of the transfer from Seton Hall, I'm making it my goal to create a nickname that sticks throughout his days at Illinois, and that nickname is "The Sweater" - for no other reasons than his last name is Cosby, and Bill Cosby adorned himself with ugly sweaters. Heck, maybe he has an abnormally hairy chest and the nickname takes on a literal meaning as well.
What we know - The Sweater, a 6-foot-3, 195 lb shooting guard, played two years of Big East basketball at Seton Hall before transferring to Illinois and sitting out this season. During his sophomore year, he averaged 14.6 points per game versus the elite of the Big East (NCAA Tournament teams and UConn) - the former conference arguably as difficult as the Big Ten was last year.
Throughout his entire sophomore season, he shot 40 percent from three-point land. Who is the best three-point shooter on our current roster that's taken at least 30 threes? John Ekey, our stretch four, is shooting 36 percent from three. After Ekey, only two other players are even shooting above 30 percent from three on the year. Cosby is an immediate upgrade in terms of shooting the ball. He's not just a spot shooter either. He can create his own shot if needed and get to the foul line with some consistency, as he shot 105 free throws last season. Cosby can also handle the rock a bit. He averaged three assists per game his last season at Seton Hall and had a positive assist/turnover ratio.
Where he fits in - I'm not a betting man, but If I was, I'd almost be willing to go all in on Cosby being our starting shooting guard next year. He brings a ton of experience and reliability with him. He'll keep defenses honest on the outside creating those much needed driving lanes, and he can take on some point guard responsibilities. The team will also be able to roll out numerous guard lineups next year due to Cosby's versatility.
Choosing the next player on the list was a bit of a struggle, and it wasn't until Jack posted this video that I made my decision. I have to go with youth and and a little more potential.
Leron Black: Leron is our highest rated recruit (according to the RSCI where he comes in at No. 40) since Jereme Richmond and Meyers Leonard in 2010. They combined for three total seasons in Champaign and left no real legacy on the court. You'd have to go back to 2002 to find a commitment rated higher than Leron that actually signed with us and made a real impact. That guy's name was Dee Brown. You may have heard of him. Leron had offers from just about everyone. Before he committed to the Illini, Black had committed and decommited from Baylor, with Memphis and Florida also very high on his list. Leron Black is a power forward in the mold of a Roger Powell with a very similar skill set - a physical rebounder that finishes at the rim and has some shooting touch. I've seen some message board posters on other sites calling him Rev 2.0. I like that. Let's use it.
What we know - Rev 2.0 is a 6-foot-7, 215 lb power forward from Memphis, Tenn. He currently balls for Whitestation High School, the No. 4 HS team in the country, and in the summer, he did a lot of dunking for Team Thad when he wasn't hobbled by a bum ankle. He's a well put together power forward. He likes to slam anything remotely close to the rim, he brings energy on both sides of the court, e rebounds with tenacity, he's strong on the block...wait. I'm missing something. Oh, yeah! He has some resemblance of a post move! It's easy to forget about post moves when we haven't really seen one from this team all season.
Where he fits in - As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, rebounding is one of the biggest weaknesses for the Illini right now. Leron's strength, energy, and athletic ability should make him one of our better rebounders immediately. He'll also provide some much needed post scoring when he gets his chances. Just like I struggled with where to rank Leron compared to Darius Paul, John Groce will have a tough decision on who to start at the four along side Egwu. Because Darius has had a full year in Groce's system already, I'll predict, for now, that Leron is one of the first subs off the bench to start the season.
Darius Paul - Darius Paul is the younger brother of former Illini hero Brandon Paul. He spent is freshman year at Western Michigan earning MAC Freshman of the Year. He's another big bodied, athletic power forward, but shows a much more finesse type of game. He's a great passer in the post as you'll see from this video from last year's MAC tourney matchup against Eastern Michigan. Check out the 52 second mark. Me likey. I'm trying to think of a nickname but drawing a blank. His brother was casually called BP3. Darius chose #35. I'm open to suggestions.
What we know - Darius is a 6-foot-8, 220 lb clone of his brother that just kept growing. He will be a redshirt sophomore with 3 more years of eligibility. During his freshman season at Western Michigan, Darius averaged 10.4 points and 5.6 rebounds in just under 25 minutes per game. He also averaged almost 2 assists throughout his time on the floor. He looks to have a nice shooting stroke. He's doesn't look as strong on the block on film as say Leron already does, but he's had another year to mature and get stronger under the strength program, so that can improve.
Where he fits in - As I mentioned, I have Darius penciled in as the starting power forward to begin next season. Will he start? We'll find out in about nine months. Black will be a freshman, Hill is more of a 3/4 tweener, and I just don't see Colbert being ready yet. Paul's passing and shooting can add a high-low dimension to the offense that might open space under the hoop for cutters, drivers, or Nnanna. Seriously, anything to help Egwu's anemic offense would be a plus.
We have two left. Who's next?
Ahmad Starks: Ahmad may have been our most talked about transfer this year. If you've been living under a rock, Ahmad transferred from Oregon State to be closer to his ailing grandmother (who basically raised him) hoping the NCAA would approve his hardship waiver request. Apparently, this situation doesn't meet the exact qualifications of the waiver, and the NCAA rejected which held even after an appeal. The outcome of all of this - Ahmad was forced to redshirt this year, and the team lost a backup senior pg that can shoot the ball. At least I don't have to waste time pondering a nickname. Ahmad goes by "Lil Man." You can see what he's capable of in this video.
What we know - Lil Man is a 5-foot-9, 170 lb guard that played three seasons at Oregon State. He played on the 2009 Whitney Young championship team and the 2010 Whitney Young runner up team. Coming from the Chicago Public League, we know he's tough. Although a bit short, Starks can shoot the ball. His three-point shooting percentage went up each year he played for the Beavers finishing his junior season at 39.5 percent. Again, much like Cosby, Starks adds another sharp shooter to the mix. He also averaged 10.4 points, 2.3 assists, and one steal per game as a junior in the Pac-10
Where he fits in - There is an abundance of guards on next year's roster. Groce will have to find minutes for Abrams, Tate, Cosby, Nunn, and Starks. That's not even mentioning Rice who can play the two. Starks will definitely see the floor because he can shoot, dribble, and defend, but how much time he spends in games is yet to be determined.
Last but not least...
Michael Finke: The son of Jeff Finke, four-year standout tight end on the Illinois football team (who also was part of the 1986 basketball recruiting class that included Nick Anderson, Kendall Gill, and Stephen Bardo), Michael Finke rounds out our 2014 recruiting class. Does anyone else see the recruiting parallel between father and son that was so very close to happening? That's another topic on it's own. Michael is a 3-star stretch 4 with a great shot and solid athletic ability. Here's a highlight video. He's a local kid, and his father was a football star at U of I. Of course, we're calling him "The Legacy."
What we know - The Legacy was the first 2014 commitment for John Groce way back in December of 2012. Iowa, Purdue, and Wisconsin were flirting with him, but he decided to stay home. Finke is the prototypical stretch four that Groce loves to have on the court a la Tyler Griffey and Jon Ekey. I guess your last name needs to end with that "ee" sound to play this position at Illinois. Finke is having a strong senior year at Centennial High School in Champaign, IL. He has a decent shot to climb the rankings when the final decisions are made but expect him to remain a 3 star recruit.
Where he fits in - This is tough. A redshirt is not out of the question. What Groce will have to decide is how he handles the 4 position next year. If he decides to remain consistent with how he uses the 4, Finke might surprise if perimeter shooting isn't improved by Black, Paul (the best of the three), and Colbert. Considering the upgrade of personnel at the 4, however, Finke might be better fit to use the year adding strength and weight to his frame.
There you have it - an in depth look at our 2014 recruiting class including the transfers. In next week's article, we'll take a look at the 2015 commitments and targets. There will be a new spin on the topic as well.
Tomorrow's football roundup will focus on the upcoming signing day and how Tim Beckman's newest class will shape up.
Enjoy your MLK, Jr. Day!
G-O, Illini GO!