CHAMPAIGN — Mike Thomas didn't know John Groce before he sat down for a three-hour conversation during the Illinois basketball coaching search.
"I'd never met him before the interview," Thomas said Saturday morning at Memorial Stadium. "I only knew what I had heard from other people and from the background research we had done."
Here's where the story goes: And Groce blew him away! The interview knocked off his orange socks! Thomas called the Board of Trustees and shouted, "This is our guy!"
Really, it wasn't anything like that. What Thomas saw was an intelligent 40-year-old who could relate to a university administrator as well as a 17-year-old kid from the inner city.
The latest example — the first major example since Groce arrived at Illinois in March — was Kendrick Nunn's verbal commitment to Illinois on Saturday. The 6-foot-1 shooting guard from Chicago Simeon pledged to Groce's staff and put a tidy bow on his official visit.
This kind of progress is what Thomas envisioned when he hired Groce away from Ohio. Just maybe not this soon, with Illini basketball recently showing the momentum of a parked car.
"He has that personality that's so important in recruiting," Thomas said when asked what he saw in Groce as a recruiter. "Recruiting a student-athlete is not that different than meeting the average person. It's about building a relationship and trust level (with the prospect). John is a people person. He's very good with people."
Nunn is a solid prospect, a straight 2-guard who appreciates playing defense and works like his starting spot depends on it. The 2013 recruit is considered a top-60 prospect by the Scout.com and Rivals.com services. His ballhandling and outside shot need work.
As a member of USA Basketball, Nunn won a gold medal at the FIBA Americas U16 Championships. A big part of the reason he made the roster was his commitment to defense.
Most important, from a talent standpoint, is how Nunn fits the profile of Groce's type of player — aggressive. Or, as Groce often describes his kind of player, "In attack mode."
"I know you saw the way John used those guards at Ohio. He lets them loose and gives them a lot of freedom to make plays," said Reggie Rankin, a recruiting analyst for ESPN.com. "With Kendrick, he's an offensive player. You've just got to let him be in attack mode off the bounce. John's offense is going to be ball screens with a lot of spacing. I think that's good for Kendrick because there's a lot of openings for him to slash to the basket, draw defenders and score."
The Illini also had Simeon coach Rob Smith in their corner for this recruitment. Smith, who has won an IHSA-record five state titles at Simeon, felt Groce's system would be a proper fit for Nunn's style of play.
Melvin Nunn, his father, said Kendrick plans to wear the familiar No. 25 at Illinois — the jersey worn by Simeon grads in honor of the late Ben Wilson.
"We can continue to bring the history to our state school, coming from Chicago and the powerhouse of Simeon High School," Melvin Nunn said. "And we want to continue the history Illinois has always had with Simeon players."
The commitment gives Illinois its third prospect in the 2013 recruiting class. Nunn joins Belleville East swingman Malcolm Hill and Springboro (Ohio) center Maverick Morgan in the class, which can sign a letter of intent in November.
In the grand scheme for the program, a single commitment from a solid prospect won't alter Illini fortunes on its own. But Groce's arrival did.
Five months into his tenure, he is swinging for the fences. It's reasonable to dream big once he has more time to work with. And he might not need much more time.
Illinois also is making a hard push for Demetrius Jackson, a point guard from Mishawaka (Ind.), and Xavier Rathan-Mayes, a combo guard from Huntington (W.Va.) Prep.
"I believe Demetrius, the point guard from (Indiana), is most likely, in the next few days, going to jump on in as well," Melvin Nunn added. "And I know a couple of other kids were waiting to see what Kendrick was going to do."
At halftime of Saturday's football game, Thomas and Groce met for a brief conversation on the field at Memorial Stadium. It was shorter than their 3-hour interview in March. But the result of that interview already is paying off.
"He gets your attention," ESPN analyst and Flyin' Illini member Stephen Bardo said Saturday. "He has a way with people, a way of relating to them, that's rare."