Men's basketball coach John Groce has gone beyond Illinois' borders to recruit some of his latest blue-chippers, and the strategy is starting to pay off.
In the realm of bouncing and shooting an inflated leather spheroid, Jim Delany’s Big Ten Conference offered the NCAA’s strongest and deepest quintets in 2012-13.
Overtaking the Big East and basketball-wacky ACC, and leaving the Pac-12 and SEC far behind, the trio of Indiana, Michigan and Ohio State produced 29 or more wins, and Michigan State rattled off 27.
It seems somewhat strange, then, that recruiting has developed so slowly this fall.
You’d think elite athletes would jump on board left and right. These are, after all, quality educational institutions boasting large arenas and outstanding coaches.
But only Illinois and Ohio State are showing any real benefits feeding from the celebrity-like prominence. Others are languishing. With Scout.com’s audit of the Top 100 high school seniors showing 64 orally committed, the Buckeyes have landed three (including Normal U-High’s Keita Bates-Diop, No. 20), Illinois with two and Northwestern one (St. Rita’s Vic Law at No. 69). That’s it. And the numbers with Rivals.com are only slightly different.
Nine conference members don’t have a single Top 100 commitment.
Before going forward, understand: (1) Michigan State remains in the running for uncommitted super-studs Jahlil Okafor, Tyus Jones and Cliff Alexander, (2) Indiana is working on newly available JaQuan Lyle and (3) there could be any number of late developments, particularly as it pertains to Chicago Curie’s Alexander.
Furthermore, one class isn’t necessarily a cure-all for success. Some Big Ten teams are set for years in any case.
Shot in the arm
Illini expectations have risen dramatically with John Groce’s recent successes in attracting Leron Black from Memphis and Quentin Snider from Louisville, both having decommitted from other schools previously.
But with the new season creeping up on us, we soon must turn to the games. Groce wouldn’t have four emergency transfers — Rayvonte Rice, Aaron Cosby, Ahmad Starks and Darius Paul — if the program he inherited was healthy. Fact is, Groce’s first Illini team overachieved in tying for seventh in the Big Ten with an 8-10 record and lost most of last season’s scoring punch through graduation.
He faces the realization that Tom Izzo’s veteran Michigan State Spartans could be No. 1 in the country, that Michigan is packed up front with 6-foot-10 Mitch McGary, 6-8 Jordan Morgan and 6-6 Glenn Robinson III, that Ohio State will build another winner around Aaron Craft, that Iowa is on the move and Indiana has quality young talent. Wisconsin hasn’t been mentioned, and the Badgers (12-6 last season) have finished ahead of Illinois six of the last seven years with an overall Big Ten mark of 89-35 to the UI’s 58-66.
Point is: Illinois is on the move. But don’t expect too much overnight. Groce is in a building mode, and that’s why the seven nonconference home games at the State Farm Center are so marginally attractive.
A slam dunk
But slap your buddy’s back. Something extremely positive has happened. Under Groce, the Illini are no longer restricted to their state boundary, a shortcoming of historic proportions. This key change began with Groce’s near misses for Mishawaka’s Demetrius Jackson and Canadian Xavier Rathan-Mayes. It got a boost with the acquisition of big Maverick Morgan from Ohio and Austin Colbert from New Jersey, and carried through the recent pickups of Black and Snider.
At the same time, Groce built strong relationships in the Chicago Public League by attracting athletes from Simeon (Kendrick Nunn, Jaylon Tate) and Whitney Young (Starks via Oregon State).
In the course of a year and a half, Groce has made Illinois viable again on the national scene, an accomplishment that has done wonders for the fan psyche. Some say the slumbering giant has been aroused.
Black and Snider fit the role of ideal college players because, while they’re blue-chippers, they don’t appear to be one- or two-and-done (like Alexander). Their presence over multiple years will impact two vital areas, rebounding with Black and penetration with Snider.
For those disappointed in seeing Marian Catholic whirlwind Tyler Ulis matriculate to Kentucky, Snider offers stouter defense at the point, which is the basic reason Illinois never got involved with the even more explosive Ulis. The 5-8 Ulis is, incidentally, ranked No. 29 by Scout, two slots above Snider.
With Black and Snider in the fold, the quest for Alexander now becomes realistic, though still a long shot. That’s what good recruiting does. It enhances your chances in the next quest.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.