CHAMPAIGN — Even when Illinois signed five high school seniors for its Class of 2013 in Novemeber, John Groce’s staff didn’t stop recruiting for next season.
Case in point: Groce will spend Thursday night a time zone away in Hobbs, N.M., checking out New Mexico Junior College guard Desmond Lee against Howard (Texas) College.
Lee, a 6-foot-4-inch, 195-pound combo guard originally from Norfolk, Va., recently received a scholarship offer from Illinois. Assistant coach Jamall Walker made the first contact, and has stayed in touch with Lee since the new year started.
“They entered the picture right around a month and a half ago,” New Mexico Junior College assistant coach Brian Lohrey said. “Coach Walker came down, and he’s kind of been the one that’s been the point guard on this and recruiting him the most.”
Illinois isn’t the only one vying for Lee’s services. Arkansas, Auburn, Baylor, Creighton, North Carolina State and Miami (Fla.) have also offered Lee, with Georgia, Penn State, Virginia Tech, Washington and Washington State inquiring as well.
“When it comes to going off the bounce and coming off ball screens, he’s a good player,” Lohrey said of Lee, who is averaging a team-best 14.8 points and 5.1 rebounds for the 21-4 Thunderbirds. “He’s increasingly getting better at defense. Early in the year he really shot it well from three. I think being the best guard in our league, every night he’s getting focused on so he has to go through some growing pains. When he does get open looks, he knocks them down.”
The key question regarding Lee possibly suiting up at Illinois is where a scholarship would come from. The Illini currently don’t have one available for the 2013-14 season unless a current underclassmen leaves.
Lohrey said he doesn’t anticipate Lee making a decision until after New Mexico Junior College’s season ends, which Lohrey hopes is at the NJCAA National Tournament from March 19-23 in Hutchinson, Kan.
Lohrey doesn’t think location will factor into Lee’s recruitment. Lee — who played his high school basketball at Booker T. Washington High School in Norfolk before playing a season of prep school basketball at Heat Academy in Martinsville, Va., — initially signed with Texas El-Paso, but didn’t qualify academically, which led him to New Mexico Junior College in Hobbs. Hobbs sits right on the New Mexico-Texas border in southeastern New Mexico, and is about a two-hour drive from Roswell, N.M., and a two-hour drive from Lubbock, Texas.
Lohrey cited the tradition at Illinois and the job Groce has done in his first season for key reasons why Lee is interested in Illinois.
“Illinois had a couple good wins recently, and you can see they can get it back on track to where it should be,” Lohrey said. “He’s adjusted fine to New Mexico. When he first came out here, it was a little bit different than home with no green rolling hills or beaches, but the bottom line is he’s here to play basketball, go to school and go on to the next level.”