Josh Whitman and the Illinois Fighting Illini correctly put an end to the Kendrick Nunn saga earlier this week by dismissing the junior guard from the basketball program. We'll soon be addressing how that decision impacts the 2016-17 squad, but here's what you can expect the depth chart to look like.
Projected Illinois Basketball Depth Chart
|Point Guard||Shooting Guard||Small Forward||Power Forward||Center|
|Tracy Abrams (SR)||Jalen Coleman-Lands (SO)||Malcolm Hill (SR)||Leron Black (R-SO)||Mike Thorne Jr. (SR)|
|Te'Jon Lucas (FR)||Aaron Jordan (SO)||D.J. Williams (SO)||Michael Finke (R-SO)||Maverick Morgan (SR)|
|Jaylon Tate (SR)||Kipper Nichols (R-FR)|
With the exception of perhaps point guard (I could see Lucas pushing Abrams for the starting spot at some point), I'm confident that this is what we'll eventually see. But there's still one open scholarship for John Groce to work with. How will the coaching staff use it? Here are the four options they have.
1. Kentucky transfer Charles Matthews
Charles Matthews needs to be Illinois' No. 1 priority for this scholarship. The Chicago native is a former five-star prospect (he slid into four-star territory after committing to Kentucky), and the Fighting Illini finished as the runner-up in his recruitment. With the Wildcats, Matthews only averaged a meager 1.7 points and 1.6 rebounds during his freshman season, but he appeared in every single game. Here's what A Sea of Blue, Kentucky's SB Nation site, had to say about Matthews' limited playing time down the stretch.
Matthews' freshman year may not have gone as he had expected. His minutes diminished as the year progressed and wasn't much of a factor near the end of the season. He was battling an injury in which he had taken care of at season's end, so that may have contributed to his lack of playing time.
High School Highlights (Senior Season)
Matthews will have three remaining years of eligibility after sitting out the 2016-17 season, making him an ideal candidate to replace Malcolm Hill. The Illini need more athleticism on the perimeter and that's exactly what they'd be getting in the 6-foot-6 guard. Matthews' only notable area of weakness is his shooting ability, but the sit-out year would allow him to improve that aspect of his game.
Illinois hasn't yet contacted Matthews (at least publicly), but they'll surely be up against some tough competition if/when they enter the race. Luckily for the the Illini, they may have a huge advantage in D.J. Williams; the two played on the same AAU team in high school and are very good friends.
The only downside with this potential addition is that it'd take away a scholarship from the 2017 recruiting class. So it could, in theory, make it more difficult to land a prospect like Jordan Goodwin, who may play a similar role at the next level. But that shouldn't matter -- you take Matthews in a heartbeat if you can get him.
2. Fifth-year post player
Could John Groce add another graduate transfer? It's certainly possible. The only issue is that it's June, so the Illini are quite late to the transfer party. Although one name that does come to mind is Valparaiso big man Alec Peters; the 6-foot-9 forward just withdrew his name from the NBA Draft, and he averaged 18.4 points and 8.5 rebounds last season. Peters is eligible to become a graduate transfer, and there's already talk that he may choose to follow former Crusaders coach Bryce Drew (and assistant Roger Powell) to Vanderbilt.
Either way, the 2016-17 front court is pretty much set now that Mike Thorne Jr. is returning for a sixth year. Adding another body would be nice, sure, but only if it's someone that could actually help the team.
3. Wait for more transfers
Assuming Illinois first misses out on Charles Matthews, this wouldn't be a completely terrible route. Waiting for other, more talented transfers to become available would be a gamble, but it could certainly pay off for John Groce. Khalid Lewis, for example, waited until July to graduate and transfer from La Salle; he didn't enroll at Illinois until early August.
4. Don't use the scholarship
Not a fan of this for multiple reasons, but I especially hate it because the Illini would be better served by grabbing a fifth-year player from your local community college. [UNNAMED PLAYER] would only be with the program for a single season anyway so why let the scholarship go completely unused? If this does end up happening, you'd likely see one of the walk-ons get a 'promotion' for a single semester.
What do you think Illinois should do with the open scholarship? Make sure to vote in our poll question and share your opinion below in the comments.