John Groce's Fighting Illini have been in the college basketball news lately. Not only has Groce built a much improved team of transfers and freshmen with only three returning players in 2013-14, but he's recruiting for a promising future.
He first landed Champaign star Michael Finke, whom committed to Illinois in December. More recently, he was able to land four-star recruits Leron Black and Quentin Snider, who hail from Tennessee and Kentucky, respectively.
ESPN's second-ranked recruit Cliff Alexander is still on the market. Alexander will be visiting U of I during Homecoming weekend in late October.
Whether or not Alexander commits to Illinois, 2014-15 has the makings of a special season.
Following three seasons as the point guard for the Oregon State Beavers, Ahmad Starks decided he'd chase greener pastures.
He is from Chicago, where he played at Whitney Young with Ohio State freak athlete Sam Thompson, former Purdue guard Anthony Johnson and Michael Jordan's younger son Marcus.
Starks averaged 12.1 points, 2.3 rebounds, 2.0 assists and 1.7 steals as a sophomore before taking dip in his junior season statistics. He is a career 36 percent three-point shooter and connects on 86 percent of his free throws.
Starks is currently waiting on the NCAA's decision as to whether or not to grant a waiver would allow him to play for the Illini immediately.
If his waiver is granted, Illinois would be at 13 scholarship players for 2014-15, which is the limit. If it is not granted, then the Illini would have 14 signed players and would be oversigned by one, without even including the possibility of Alexander.
Starks would be able to backup Tracy Abrams at point guard either way, though the need for him is greater this upcoming season than it would be in 2014-15.
The Illini could use a steady veteran guard who could see minutes with Abrams in the backcourt. Starks should be hearing from the NCAA with their decision in the near future.
Cliff Alexander will be down in Champaign in just over a month from now. He announced his decision to visit the school after fellow 2014 recruit Quentin Snider announced his commitment to Illinois just a week following Leron Black's commitment.
According to 247Sports Crystal Ball Projections, there are five schools with a fighting chance of landing Alexander.
Kansas is the clear cut favorite with 84 percent of the vote, Michigan State has six percent, while Illinois, Kentucky and DePaul each were given a three percent chance.
Alexander recently announced his intention to play collegiate ball with fellow five star recruit JaQuan Lyle, who just canceled his commitment to Louisville. Alexander later retracted the statement and said he would like to play with Lyle, but that both players would go wherever is the best option for them.
If John Groce can continue his recruiting magic, Alexander would be the best signing yet.
Of the 10 players to take official visits to Illinois since Groce has taken the helm, eight have ended up choosing Illinois. A Cliff Alexander-Nnanna Egwu frontcourt could be quite a duo if Groce lands Alexander.
Quentin Snider's decision to decommit from reigning national champion Louisville was documented to be because of a crowded backcourt.
Ironically however, Snider will be walking into a crowded backcourt in Champaign, which I believe to be a good problem to have.
When Snider suits up in 2014-15, he will be competing with former Simeon guard Jaylon Tate at the backup point guard slot behind Tracy Abrams. There's a chance Ahmad Starks is still on campus then too. Rayvonte Rice, Kendrick Nunn and Seton Hall transfer Aaron Cosby are all formidable options at shooting guard as well.
I believe that Snider will end up as the team's backup point guard for one season behind Abrams, before being the lead guard the remainder of his time in Champaign.
Snider will be able to score himself, but also distribute to the deepest Illinois roster in recent memory.
Illinois' backcourt will be loaded in 2014-15. Whether you consider small forward to be a part of the backcourt or frontcourt, there should be a two horse race for starting small forward once Black arrives on campus.
Current freshman Malcolm Hill, who comes from Belleville, IL, should backup redshirt senior Joseph Bertrand this upcoming year and gain valuable experience. Hill's reputation is that of a pure scorer. He has a Kevin Durant-like physique and is a smooth offensive weapon.
Black is considered more of a tweener and could see minutes at both small forward and power forward during his time in Champaign. Other than Hill though, Black is the only other small forward option.
As a lanky athletic forward, Black excels in an open court and fast paced offense, which Groce will provide.
Should Illinois land Alexander, I predict Black to backup Hill at small forward in 2014-15 but nearly split the minutes there. If Illinois loses the Cliff Alexander sweepstakes, Black could find himself in competition with Darius Paul, Austin Colbert and Michael Finke for minutes at power forward and play more overall.
Finke's decision to play for his hometown Fighting Illini was likely an easy one. What won't be easy however, is finding immediate playing time for this 6'9" and 210-pound power forward.
Finke fits the Tyler Griffey/Jon Ekey stretch four power forward mold, though he'll need to add muscle to play in the paint in the rugged Big Ten. Finke attends Champaign Centennial, where redshirt junior Rayvonte Rice also attended before attending Drake prior to his transfer back home to Illinois.
If Cliff Alexander comes to Illinois, his stay will likely be a short one.
Alexander would get a heavy load of minutes at power forward, leaving Finke, Darius Paul and Austin Colbert to battle for the remainder of minutes as his backup. I don't see Finke beating both Paul and Colbert out immediately though.
If Alexander decides Champaign is not for him, then those three will fight for minutes at the four spot for three straight seasons as Paul and Colbert will be sophomores when Finke is a freshman.
My expectation is for Finke to be a role player early in his career, before taking on a bigger part as an upperclassman.