Loren Tate: Groce goes transfer route
If you checked the heart of Illini Nation, it would be orange, spherical and inflated. A basketball. Round the clock, month by month, there’s more interest in just one aspect, basketball recruiting, than in the performance of the other 17 non-football sports on campus.
Put a Top 10 quintet together and the folks will flood the State Farm Center. But the aging clan of bandwagon jumpers, having lived the happy days (however infrequent), won’t accept mediocrity.
One year into the John Groce regime, the public perception is positive mixed with wait-and-see. Groce’s first team shook the doldrums to win an NCAA game and nearly another. He showed he can inspire and coach them. But as Groce moves forward, he faces a repeat of last season’s transition year (nine new squadmen) and an unfamiliar trail he never envisioned.
With its proud tradition, the UI should be attractive to blue-chip prep prospects. However, the Illini spun off that track a few years ago. In the unlucky seven seasons since Dee Brown graduated in 2006, Illinois has produced one first-team All-Big Ten player. Just one, then-junior Demetri McCamey in 2010. He didn’t repeat.
The last three seasons find Illinois with a 23-31 Big Ten record and without a first- or second-team selection ... this despite Meyers Leonard’s first-round NBA draft status in 2012. With some exceptions, and in a development that must be reversed, Illinois has ceased to be a “destination” for in-state blue-chippers, and at the same time has extended decades of shutouts by neighboring, basketball-rich Indiana.
Groce has taken the next-best option. He has gone the transfer route, made popular by Wichita, Missouri, Iowa State and others. Rayvonte Rice, Jon Ekey and possibly Ahmad Starks will play key roles in the coming season, and Rice, Darius Paul and Aaron Cosby are projected as bellwethers in 2014-15 ... a highly critical time because many fans will finalize decisions about adjusted (and more costly) seating in a renovated Center.
How did this evolve? What I see is a huge talent dropoff from elites like Jabari Parker, Jahlil Okafor and Cliff Alexander, with Groce arriving too late to get in on some of the next-best Chicagoland stars like Sterling Brown, Billy Garrett and Kendall Stephens.
Cosby has proved himself. He brings multiple backcourt skills from Seton Hall, offering experience, ball handling and three-point accuracy. Brandon Paul’s brother is 6-foot-8 and prolific enough to win Mid-American Freshman of the Year honors. He is a sure bet for three years in the rotation. Those two make sense, just as Rice does. All three are better than the “next best” preps.
This wasn’t the route Groce expected. But he was rebuffed at the crossroads, so he took the other path and made it work. The task now is to use these transfers in a way to raise interest among five-star elites about this “basketball school.”
New way of doing business
EDITOR’S NOTE: If you’re a Kentucky basketball fan or a representative of Buckeye football interests, this doesn’t pertain to you.
You see, most teams aren’t perennial winners. Most are like Illinois and Purdue and Iowa. They struggle to compete and strive to keep die-hard fans involved. Whether we like it or not, sports are becoming increasingly tied to TV sets — why attend when you have a 55-incher, a comfy couch and a nearby fridge? — and this is forcing teams to seek innovative and cheaper ways of enticing folks through the turnstiles. Alarms are buzzing from one marketing office to another.
One wag has mentioned, what with the UI’s Big Ten revenue expected to hit $40 million by 2017, that Robeson’s basement might hold some dusty mannequins that could be brushed off and seated as attendees. That way, the stands wouldn’t look empty when the cameras pan around.
A writer expressed the opinion that those who actually attend are merely “props and background for a TV show.” Who can argue? TV sets rule the day. Maryland made it into the Big Ten chiefly because six or seven counties around Washington, D.C., are the largest and most prosperous in the nation, and ripe for TV plucking. Rutgers arrives as a suburb of New York City. The Big Ten Network could be bundled out there for a fraction of what it costs in the Midwest, and it would resemble a Klondike gold strike.
Meanwhile, the games go on. And Illinois, which will sell more than 11,000 south-end football season tickets for $99 this fall, has decided to make a similar deal in basketball.
Customers can purchase a newly created, banner-level season ticket for $199. These seats are located in the top four rows of C Section behind the baselines. This is called a savings of more than 54 percent off the regular C Section season ticket price of $435. Groce reminds that folks can latch on at a cost of $11 per game (16 games and two exhibitions).
P.S., just between us, they wouldn’t be doing that if they could sell all those tickets at full price.
— The Groce staff decided early not to recruit Tyler Ulis, the slippery Marian Catholic point guard, because his 5-8 size makes him vulnerable on defense. Ulis had a spectacular junior season, and his magical dribbling is almost unstoppable by a single defender. He ranks behind only two giants, Okafor and Alexander, in the state’s upcoming senior class, and has continued to wow viewers with penetration-pass skills in the July camps. Ulis has upcoming visits to Iowa, Michigan State and Florida State while also considering offers from Northwestern, Purdue, USC and DePaul.
— My basketball insiders point out that incoming Kansas freshman Andrew Wiggins, a Toronto product, will be the second consecutive Canadian chosen No. 1 in the NBA draft. This year’s surprise pick, UNLV’s Anthony Bennett, hails from Ontario. Both, of course, played in U.S. prep schools (there’s no problem in crossing that border).
— It seemed like a gamble for Butler to hire a head coach, Brandon Miller, who hasn’t been on the court for the last two years. But Miller displayed all the makings during his brief stay as an office aide to Groce. The Bulldogs face tougher sledding in the Big East but, personally, I think Butler made a good choice.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at email@example.com.