Groce keeping tabs on Whitney Young trio
Tyrone Slaughter will get asked this question more times than he can count in 2013.
Where is (fill in the blank with one of his Chicago Whitney Young boys basketball players) going to college?
Three juniors on the Dolphins roster have attracted the interest of Illinois head coach John Groce — center Jahlil Okafor, forward Paul White and shooting guard/small forward L.J. Peak — as the Illini still try to work on their Class of 2014.
The Illini don't have any open scholarships at this point with the commitment of Champaign Centennial (Ill.) High School junior forward Michael Finke in mid-December.
That doesn't mean, however, Groce and his staff aren't still out checking out the junior class.
"One of the things I tell people all the time is I try not to ask where they're going because I don't really want to know so I'm not lying when people ask me," Slaughter said. "I think Coach Groce has made an asserted effort to get involved and to expedite his process. I think that's great. I think (Illinois) winning is clearly something that is an element to the process that may not have been there at the very onset given the fact that they had not played any games, but I think once they started winning, it makes it more meaningful to go in and really sell the program."
Okafor, at 6 feet, 10 inches and 280 pounds, is the consensus top player in the Class of 2014.
He has offers from Illinois, Arkansas, DePaul, Michigan State, North Carolina, North Carolina State and Ohio State, among others, with interest from practically every high-major program in the country.
"Jahlil continues to improve in every facet of the game," Slaughter said. "The things we have been most pleased with, and it has been a process for him that really started back last spring, is that he's gotten in much better physical condition. His physical condition is absolutely outstanding. When you look at him, he looks physically better. He's lost a lot of the baby fat that he once had and has replaced that more with muscle."
This, in turn, has helped Okafor develop into a better rebounder and defender, Slaughter said.
Okafor has also increased his production in another role for the 10-1 Dolphins, who will take part Saturday in the Cancer Research Classic at Wheeling Jesuit University in West Virginia that will feature Illinois recruits Jaylon Tate and Kendrick Nunn from Chicago Simeon, among other Division I recruits at the 20-team showcase spread out on Friday and Saturday.
"The thing that is probably less visible to the public is his leadership on the court," Slaughter said. "Off the court, he's always been a leader by his actions, but his involvement with his teammates has been a 360-degree turnaround from really not being the leader to having to lead to now being the No. 1 leader. It shows up in everything he does."
White — who has offers from Illinois, Arizona, Baylor, DePaul, Florida, Florida State, Indiana, Iowa, Ohio State, Purdue and Wisconsin, among others — has, like Okafor, gotten in better shape this season, according to Slaughter.
That's one reason why he was named MVP at the 16-team Beach Ball Classic in Myrtle Beach, S.C., Whitney Young won on New Year's Eve.
"That's a phenomenal pickup for him as he's always possessed exceptional skills, but him showing it day-in and day-out has always been the greatest challenge for him," Slaughter said. "Now, he's starting to play with that inner confidence that he needed to be a complete player."
Peak is more of a longshot it would appear with Illinois.
The 6-4, 190-pound Peak transferred to Whitney Young from South Carolina prior to this season, and has offers from mostly ACC schools like Clemson, Florida State, North Carolina State and Virginia Tech, among others.
But, as was evident in this past fall's recruitment with Xavier Rathan-Mayes and signing Virginia native Austin Colbert in November, Groce isn't afraid to extend his recruiting reach.
"In a perfect circumstance, we'd like to play Peak at the two (guard), but he's a kid who can defend at really three positions and possibly four depending on the size of the person," Slaughter said. "He attacks the rim with tremendous vengeance and has an above-average shot. When you start to put all that together, he's really playing some good basketball."
While the current scholarship situation Illinois has for its Class of 2014 dictates all three Whitney Young standouts — who have another fellow junior in point guard Miles Reynolds who recently picked up an offer from LSU — won't suit up together at Illinois, Groce is keeping tabs on what the Dolphins are doing.
"The best way I can say is it's ongoing," Slaughter said. "In their minds, it's still very early. They all come from great families, so to that extent, their parents are intrically involved in the process as well as they should be. I do know that Coach Groce is involved, and he's working on them. That's really all one can ask for at this part of the process."