Dawson on Groce, Calipari and more

Brett Dawson covered the last McDonald’s All-American to flourish at Illinois.

Bill Self brought in Dee Brown, who had the type of career with the Illini that future players would love to emulate.

The former Illinois men’s basketball beat writer for The News-Gazette is now covering a program that is redefining what it means to bring in top recruiting classes.

Dawson covers Kentucky for CatsIllustrated.com. And he’s covering an unprecedented recruiting class John Calipari will bring to Lexington next season.

Kentucky has a seven-man class that will suit up for the Wildcats during the 2013-14 season. Six of them are McDonald’s All-Americans.

That’s not a typo, but the new reality that is Kentucky basketball.

Dawson has covered the Kentucky program for the past seven seasons, the first five with the Louisville Courier-Journal and the last two with CatsIllustrated.com.

He was there when Tubby Smith and Billy Gillispie coached the Wildcats.

But nothing compares, recruiting-wise, to what Calipari is accomplishing, he said.

“Since Calipari took over, the last four years have been totally different, and totally different than any other Kentucky recruiting period and really kind of different than any other college anywhere in terms of the level of guys,” Dawson said. “This class (of 2013) is unprecedented.”

Since Calipari took control of Kentucky in 2009, he has landed 17 McDonald’s All-Americans. That’s four more than Illinois has had since the game started in 1977.

In the same time span that Calipari has coached Kentucky, Illinois has bagged one — Jereme Richmond, who lasted just one tumultous 2010-11 season in Champaign.

“It doesn’t compare on any level to what Illinois was recruiting when I was there,” said Dawson, who covered the Illini from 2001-06. “It was a higher level of recruit (under Self), but if you look at the time Self was there, they only got one McDonald’s All-American in Dee Brown.”

Dawson points out Illinois did receive a verbal commitment from Charlie Villanueva before the forward chose Connecticut and Eric Gordon (probably a dirty word around East Central Illinois) picked Illinois before flipping to Indiana.

Kentucky has had its share of McDonald’s All-Americans under Smith and Gillispie (Keith Bogans, Joe Crawford, Randolph Morris, Patrick Patterson, Tayshaun Prince and Rajon Rondo) but that equals the number of players in a 12-year span that Calipari is bringing in with one class.

“It’s just a different world in terms of the caliber of guy (Calipari) goes after and the caliber of guy he’s able to sign,” Dawson said. “So much of that is him. I think a Kentucky fan would like to believe they’re coming for the tradition of Kentucky and they want to play at a place where all these great players have played, but really they want to play for him. That’s the bottom line.”

So, the million dollar question is, can John Groce get to the point Calipari has in bringing in high-major prospects on a yearly basis?

“It’s going to be hard to do,” Dawson said. “The reason I say that, and people could say this is defeatist, but it’s never been done at Illinois before. At least at Kentucky, there is some history of it, and Calipari has a history of it that he was getting Derrick Rose to Memphis, which is the caliber of player Memphis hadn’t ever really gotten, especially players not from there. To get high-level national guys from different places, that wasn’t done at Memphis before. It takes the right guy to do it. Maybe Groce is that guy.”

Dawson said he is impressed with Groce’s demeanor.

The fact Illinois is coming off a 23-13 season and an appearance in the third round of the NCAA tournament should help Groce from a recruiting standpoint moving forward.

“Everybody knows Chicago has got to be home base for (Illinois), and that’s a hard home base to penetrate,” Dawson said. “There’s challenges in every aspect of recruiting Chicago, not the least of which is John Calipari wants players from Chicago and Mike Krzyzewski does and Tom Izzo does. Everybody wants players from Chicago.”

The same goes for the state of Indiana. Drive 45 minutes from Champaign-Urbana down Interstate 74 and you’re in Indiana. But Illinois hasn’t produced a player from the Hoosier state since Scott Haffner played the 1984-85 season for Lou Henson’s squad.

Dawson said he can’t understand why Illinois hasn’t been able to lure one or two players from Indiana since.

“It’s a shame for them,” Dawson said. “They had a period where Indiana wasn’t any good and Purdue wasn’t recruiting great players. I guess if you look for one thing for a positive from Illinois is that Thad Matta did get in there and was able to get guys, and that’s the guy John Groce was most recently coaching under. The staff he was on was able to make in-roads in Indiana, and maybe he can do that. The problem now is that Indiana is a power again. There’s just so much competition in Indiana, too. It’s not much different from Chicago. The level of talent is so good there right now.”

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AlD5862 wrote on April 05, 2013 at 2:04 pm

Excellent article!  However,  Kentucky gets a lot of one and dones; example: this year when their best player went down with a knee injury, they did not fare too well (see Robert Morris U.). I personally would like to see the players like Dee and James Augustine who stay for 4 years and get their degrees.  A look at Wisconsin (how many McDonald's All-Americans have they had) how they consistantly win, make the NCAAs and, more importantly graduate the student/athletes.  I consider Coach Groce is establishing this type of environement (vice the one and dones); with continued success on the court; and with the "new" Assembly Hall he will build a program that the players want to participate in.

IlliniMike05 wrote on April 06, 2013 at 2:04 pm

What do you mean, "However, Kentucky gets a lot of one and dones"? That was the entire point.


And sorry, but it's not more important that they graduate players. Let's be honest with ourselves. We don't show up for to cheer for them in their sports management classes. We cheer for them playing basketball. Illinois has an excellent graduation rate, too, but it's not filling me up with pride when we've been in the middle of the pack at best in the Big Ten (this past season notwithstanding, as I was extremely proud of this team despite an 8-10 conference record).


Kentucky didn't fare well after losing Noel because they weren't nearly as talented this year as in previous years anyway. Their point guard play was below average (that's being kind) and Goodwin/Poythress/Caulie-Stein were not considered one-and-done talents. This class was well below their '09, '10, '11 and '13 classes. If you think what happened this year is going to happen next year, well, I wouldn't get your hopes up.


And why does it have to be one or the other in terms of four-year guys and one and dones? Why the need for the false dichotomy? Like I said, Illinois has an excellent graduation rate, and that's great. Would you be less proud of the players that did graduate if they'd been augmented over the years- in the process turning bad teams good, good teams great, and great teams into national champs- by one- or two-and dones like Anthony Davis, Brad Beal, Derrick Rose, Eric Gordon, Julian Wright, Charlie Villanueva, Shaun Livingston (yes, I realize he went straight pro, but obviously couldn't in today's rules), etc? Of course you wouldn't. At least I really hope not.


Bottom line, unless you're at Kentucky most of your players will be four-year guys. Malcolm Hill is probably the only guy in our incoming class that has any chance to go pro before his senior year. So, yeah, I agree that guys like Dee and Augie are the ideal foundation pieces: All-American, potential NBA-caliber guys who stick around to be upperclassmen. But augmenting that with the transformational, one-and-done caliber talents? That's what Groce is attempting, and I bet before long he's going to be successful. If it isn't Cliff Alexander/Jaquan Lyle/Laron Black in '14, it'll be someone in '15. (Looking at you, Charles Matthews and Jalen Brunson.)

Illinigrad wrote on April 06, 2013 at 12:04 am

And, when was the last time WI made the final four?  The WI approach, though commendable, will never lead to a N. C. in BB.  Groce has to get some top talent to have a shot at the Final Four and a N. C.  Lou Henson would have done it if the Deon frame had not happened.  Self would have probably done so if he had stayed and built on his recruiting.  Weber would have never made the N. C. game without Self's players. Weber could not get to the NCAA with his own recruits. Groce has a shot if he brings in some hot talent.

IlliniMike05 wrote on April 06, 2013 at 3:04 pm

Well said. Wisconsin *has*, however, brought in better talent under Ryan than I think a lot of people realize. Still, they don't even really touch the kind of transformational talent Illinois has at least consistently targeted (and has shown the ability to land in the past under every coach but Weber and will almost undoubtedly do again with Groce). So you're absolutely right. They have an approach, from a style of play standpoint (though they don't really run the swing offense anymore) and a recruiting standpoint- and Ryan does as good of a job of anyone at combining his recruiting and style-of-play philosophies, consistently finding fairly talented guys who fit what he wants to do- that will probably always make them consistently good but unlikely to ever break through to that next level.

Green Shirt wrote on April 06, 2013 at 7:04 am

Calipari should not even be coaching college basketball. The guy had Final Fours vacated at two schools (UMass and Memphis) and yet the NCAA has let him continue to coach.  The "One and Done" situation runs contrary to the spirit of college athletics.  What is needed is the adoption of the baseball rule (which allows players to go directly from high school to the professional ranks, but makes players who opt for college off limits until after their junior year).  Unfortunately, that will not happen without the cooperation of the NBA and the NBA will not agree to this scheme as long as David Stern is the commissioner. 

IlliniMike05 wrote on April 06, 2013 at 1:04 pm

Why would the NCAA bar him from coaching? He was never actually implicated for either infraction, nor should he have been. Yes, as the head coach he bears the responsibility, rightfully so. But he wasn't implicated. Nor has he had a shred of trouble at Kentucky. The Anthony Davis stuff turned out to be baseless rumors and I've said this before, but who needs to cheat less than Calipari? More 5-star recruits want to play for him than he has scholarships to give out. He might be running the cleanest ship in major college basketball right now, as shocking as that sounds.


And the "spirit of college athletics?" C'mon, dude. The lilly-white utopian universe you're referring to hasn't existed in Division I revenue sports for decades. If, frankly, that. There were point-shaving and slush-fund scandals (including one right here) all the way back to the 40's, 50's and 60's. College sports has always been a cesspool.


And how, specifically, is David Stern at fault here? You think he likes the rule? (By the way, he's stepping down as commissioner next year. Don't expect much to change with his lapdog Adam Silver taking over.) I'll admit this makes it very confusing, but NOBODY likes the one-and-done rule. Coaches like Calipari hate it, but it's his responsibility to get the best players. NBA players hate it, because it's too often an unready kid taking a veteran's job. Owners hate it because they're paying millions of dollars for a guy to develop for years before he's ready to be a real difference-maker, if he even does so by the end of his rookie deal.


I don't like the idea of the baseball rule, personally. I think that will lead to too many kids who aren't ready for the NBA skipping college- way moreso than before the one-and-done rule- because they'd know they have to stay three years if they don't go pro right away. I think they should simply increase the age limit by one year: two years out of high school and 20 years old, instead of one and 19. The frustrating thing is during the lockout both sides were in agreement on that, but it was a minor issue and thus shelved. So it probably won't be until the current CBA is up in six years (I think) before the issue is revisited.