John Groce is putting his fingerprints squarely and firmly on the Illini basketball program.
With transfers Sam McLaurin and Rayvonte Rice already on the squad, the first-year UI coach added five high school seniors Wednesday. That’s seven players in an uncommonly active seven months.
These are his choices. Groce dropped two guards who had committed to Bruce Weber.
“Credit goes to the entire staff,” Groce said from Honolulu after Wednesday’s signings were confirmed.
“Malcolm Hill was huge. He had committed to the previous staff and was one of the first calls I made. We got him on campus quickly, and he made it clear that he wanted to play for his state school.”
After averaging 21.3 points as a junior at Belleville East, Hill was ranked second in the state by City-Suburban Hoops evaluator Joe Henricksen.
But an offseason surgery knocked him out of summer AAU action, and he didn’t make the anticipated climb in the national rankings (three services list him between Nos. 59 and 68).
“I thought he’d vault up,” Henricksen said, “but he missed the July evaluation period.”
Hill has been cleared for action and, assuming normal progress, probably stands the best chance of cracking what will be a veteran UI lineup next season.
How good is this Illini class? Opinions vary. Rivals.com lists the quintet No. 10, while Scout.com and ESPN come in at Nos. 22 and 23, respectively. Basically, we’ll have to wait to find out.
After Simeon’s Jabari Parker, the state senior class isn’t exactly loaded. Groce landed two of Parker’s teammates, which serves the double purpose of adding athletic playmakers to the squad and forming a bond with the coach, Robert Smith, who has led three straight state championships.
“We went hard after (Simeon’s) Kendrick Nunn,” Groce said. “We had a previous relationship with him at Ohio. He is a winner who shoots the ball, is unselfish and is used to playing with good players. These early commitments are important because they draw attention, and they’re like dominoes falling.”
Groce went to the wire for two nationally touted point guards, Demetrius Jackson and Xavier Rathan-Mayes, and then turned to Nunn’s wiry teammate, Jaylon Tate.
Tate served essentially as the sixth man for Simeon last season and is expected to take charge this year. Henricksen said Tate “looked good in September” and the Illini “took him out of need.”
“We recruited to our system,” Groce said. “Our objective was to get a player at each position. We sold the vision we have for this program. All five fit.”
Last on board this week was Austin Colbert, a 6-foot-9 power forward from Gladstone, N.J., and he’ll join Ohioan Maverick Morgan on the frontline. Colbert became a high-level recruit with his summer play, but transfer rules make him ineligible until January.
Singing their praises
The common thread among baseball and three women’s sports announcing recruits Wednesday is versatility.
A large number are all-around, multi-sport athletes. The incoming pitchers are also batters and fielders, and Harrisburg’s hard-throwing Ryne Roper has quarterbacked his team into this week’s 4A football semifinals.
Said softball coach Terri Sullivan: “We’re looking for more athleticism in the circle, and our two new pitchers (Californian Jade Vecvanags and Texan Brandi Needham) will probably be in our lineup as well. Brandi is a lefty hitter and a triple threat who can play middle infield. There is a trend toward pitchers who can play when they’re not pitching.”
Three of Kevin Hambly’s incoming athletes have been in the pipeline for a long time, and the volleyball coach projects two of them as possible starters next season.
Cincinnati’s 6-1 Michelle Strizak “has played literally every position (except libero),” Hambly said. “That versatility allows her to play several roles early in her career.”
Hambly always has favored athletes capable of playing more than one position.
You might include Matt Bollant on the list of coaches emphasizing versatility. He wants centers who can run and shoot, saying: “We’re not tied into numbers (rating services, one of which listed the UI No. 25). We want integrity and character, and athletes who are hard-nosed and driven. These six will build the right culture at Illinois.”
One note of concern: If Dan Hartleb signs players who are too highly ranked, he runs the risk of losing them in the baseball draft. So he’ll be sweating out hard-hitting outfielder Alex Greer, who led Iowa Western Community College to the 2012 NJCAA Division I World Series title.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.