Groce, Illini host four-star center for unofficial visit Monday

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Austin Yattoni

Illinois head coach John Groce shouts instructions to his team from the sidelines during the game against Iowa at the State Farm Center on February 7. The Illini lost 77-65.

By Matt Gertsmeier, columnist

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John Groce can’t afford a case of the Mondays — at least not this week.

Groce and the Illinois basketball program hosts four-star center Jacob Epperson on Monday for an unofficial visit. The 6-foot-11 big man announced his trip after the La Lumiere High School Basketball Combine on Wednesday.

Epperson, who hails from Melbourne, Australia, has sparked a lot of interest from major Division I programs. He is the top-ranked player from Australia and is ranked No. 57 amongst U.S. players. He is the fifth-best center according to 247sports.com.

The Aussie has nine offers, according to 247sports.com, including Illinois, Marquette, Oklahoma and Utah. But after last week’s combine, there might be more offers to come.

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    The purpose of the combine was to showcase the talent of a top-rated high school program, which includes three players in the top-60. La Lumiere has qualified for the National High School Invitational Tournament four of the last five years.

    Over 40 Division I coaches and scouts attended the combine. Notable programs included Michigan State, North Carolina, Indiana, Kentucky and UCLA. Many eyes were focused on Epperson, who remains uncommitted and relatively unknown.

    Many scouts put Epperson on their radar after he showcased his talents this summer in a few tournaments in the U.S. His breakout tournament was with his Amateur Athletic Union team, AUSA Hoops, in the NY2LA Sports Summer Jam, where he sparked a lot of interest from college coaches.

    This is also where he gained La Lumiere’s attention. Epperson was offered a scholarship to attend the prestigious basketball school in LaPorte, Indiana.

    Luckily for Groce, Illinois has a connection with La Lumiere — sophomore guards Drew Cayce and Jalen Coleman-Lands graduated from there.

    While neither Cayce nor Coleman-Lands had a chance to play with Epperson in high school, this connection might help him get a read on how he would fit in Groce’s system. Coleman-Lands has played one season under Groce. Cayce transferred after playing for Creighton last year.

    There’s a lot Epperson can bring to Groce and the Illini.

    His size allows him to be a great shot blocker in the paint. He plays great weak-side defense and keeps his head on a swivel. For someone of his size, he also does a good job of staying straight up when defending shots.

    His size also allows him to be a force on the offensive and defensive glass. He has solid footwork and is always aware of his positioning on the court.

    This will be much needed for the Illini next season: They will be losing big men Maverick Morgan and Mike Thorne Jr. Both have had big impacts on Illinois’ shot blocking and rebounding.

    Epperson is also skilled with his offensive scoring. He can run the floor and has a nice touch around the rim. Highlights of his game show he is equipped with a solid shooting form and can extend to mid-range.

    He does a good job of passing for a big man and knows where to hit the outlet man. This would be a great addition to Illinois’ fast-paced offense.

    Epperson’s slender frame could be an area of improvement. He is nearly 7 feet tall, still growing and weighs about 210 pounds. An offseason with a major emphasis in the weight room and putting on mass can solve this problem.

    The biggest area of concern with Epperson is Michigan State.

    Two of Epperson’s teammates this season are also highly-ranked recruits. Power forward Jaren Jackson is ranked No. 22 in the nation and has already committed to the Spartans. Small forward Brian Bowen is ranked No. 17, and analysts are predicting he will commit to Michigan State.

    Spartan head coach Tom Izzo has certainly made his mark and is spreading his influence at La Lumiere. Epperson could very well be next on Izzo’s list.

    To make matters worse for Illinois, Chicago Bulls rookie and former Spartan Denzel Valentine also attended the combine and posed for a picture with the La Lumiere squad.

    Hopefully John Groce can sway Epperson’s interest with Illinois when he has him out of enemy territory on Monday.

    Matt is a Junior in Business

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    @MattGertsmeier