Recruits flock to Street Jam (w/videos)
CHAMPAIGN — On the other side of town, Michael Finke’s Centennial classmates were cutting up the dance floor, celebrating their homecoming dance. Finke, though, was on Green Street, celebrating the start of the college basketball season with his family, watching his future Illinois teammates take part in the Illini Street Jam at Green and Wright streets in Campustown.
“I was talking to my girlfriend and she said I had to go to this, and I wasn’t going to argue with her,” the 2014 Illini commit said. “She’s pretty understanding. I’m blessed, for sure.”
Finke was on hand for the outdoor event along with fellow 2014 commit Quentin Snider. Finke was the first in his class to make a pledge to join John Groce’s program in December. Since then, Snider and Memphis forward Leron Black have joined the fold, giving Illinois what recruiting analysts are calling a top-10 class in the country. That could change if consensus top-five forward Cliff Alexander, who’s scheduled to visit the UI campus at the end of October, joins them in the recruiting class.
“It’s awesome, and I’m so excited to play with them. I talk to Leron a lot, and I talked to Quentin a little bit earlier,” Finke said. “We’re just getting it rolling right now.”
As Snider was posing for photos with UI students at the end of the night, a few feet away his dad was checking the Twitter mentions of his son on his iPhone 4 and taking in the scene.
“I didn’t realize how big Illinois’ fan base was until he started getting all the Twitter followers and all that through the recruiting process,” Scott Snider said.
The Sniders sat under the West basket Saturday. Quentin, the point guard who committed to the Illini on Sept. 12, wore a gray Illinois hoodie. Dad wore a white Illini ball cap and an orange polo.
“It was nice, and it was different to have this (event) outside,” Scott Snider said. “Everybody does Midnight Madness, so it was nice to do something different where all the students could come for free.”
Snider picked the Illini over UCLA and Michigan State earlier this month after backing out of a two-year commitment to the hometown Louisville Cardinals. Days after Snider made his pledge to Illinois, Louisville point guard commit JaQuan Lyle decommitted from the Cardinals, and folks were wondering if Quentin might reconsider the Cardinals again.
“I saw people say stuff on Twitter, but Quentin’s good with where he’s at,” Scott Snider said.
Life has returned somewhat to normal for Quentin since making the decision to play at Illinois.
“It’s been relaxing; it hasn’t been so busy and so many phone calls,” Scott Snider said. “He’s more at ease that he knows where he’s going again, and he can kind of just focus on his game again.”
Champaign native Rayvonte Rice reached the finals of Saturday’s dunk competition against Joseph Bertrand, but he was hardly ashamed.
“He’s just a great jumper, man, not much you can do about that,” said Rice, who finished ahead of freshmen Kendrick Nunn and Austin Colbert.
For Rice, who sat out last season after transferring from Drake, the start of practice means he’s that much closer to finally returning to the court.
“It’s right around the corner; just a few weeks we’re going to have our first game, and I can’t wait for it,” he said.
The beginning of the season hasn’t been easy for Rice and his teammates, though. Illinois practiced once Friday and went through two separate workouts Saturday before the Illini Street Jam.
“They’ve been tough. We had a two-a-day (Saturday), but we’ve got to do that if we want to accomplish what we want to accomplish. We’ve got to keep putting in the work,” Rice said. “I think we’re getting real close on and off the court. We spend a lot of time together and build team chemistry, and that’s what it’s all about. You’ve got to love the guys you’re on the court with.”
The Illinois men’s and women’s teams took on a military theme for Saturday’s event. Players from both teams entered the court in the back of a humvee and all wore camouflage T-shirts with their names and numbers on the back.
UI men’s coach John Groce emerged from the vehicle wearing full military gear from head to toe, complete with his pants tucked into his boots and a hat.
Both teams went through Navy SEAL training during the offseason to prepare for the upcoming season.
“When I put it on, I really thought about my dad fighting in Vietnam and being in the 101st Airborne,” Groce said. “We had some fun tonight and we did SEAL Team training, but it’s nothing like the sacrifices our military makes for us. I can’t say enough about that, I could go on and on and on. It’s a real passion of mine and (wife) Allison’s. My two grandparents were in World War II and my dad was in Vietnam, so were very blessed to be able to do something like this tonight because of all the sacrifices our military makes.”
It’s been quite the summer for Illinois 2015 recruiting target Aaron Jordan. Virtually unknown entering the July evaluation period, the 6-foot-4 guard from Plainfield East has become one of the fastest-rising prospects in the country.
Illinois was among the first major program to offer the combo guard, and since then Indiana, Wisconsin and Creighton have joined the other high-profile programs to make offers.
“It’s been overwhelming, but I’ve got family and support and friends and coaches around me, and they calm it down all the time and keep my head on straight, so I’ll be OK,” said Jordan, who attended the Illini Street Jam wearing orange sneakers and an Illinois pullover. “I didn’t expect this, and now that it’s happened, it’s a process I want to take my time with, be able to observe and have a good time and that’s what I’m doing so far.”
Jordan has built a solid relationship with the Illini coaching staff and said he can see himself fitting well into Groce’s system.
“Coach Groce is a great coach; I love the way he runs his practices. When I first talked to him, I got a feel for him and I could play for him in the future,” Jordan said. “I’m a versatile guard, I fit all over, there’s not really one place you can put me and that’s why I’d fit so good in his system. It’s close to home; my parents can come watch me, I’m from Illinois, I’ve lived in Illinois most of my life, where else would I be at? It’s been great. I feel like it’s home down here every time I come.”
Jordan’s dad Rob attended Saturday’s event with him and took photos of his son while he was being interviewed by various members of the media and while Illinois fans approached him to introduce themselves.
“I am enjoying it. I’m a proud father. The guy works hard,” Rob Jordan said. “The kid puts in an incalculable number of hours, and what you’re seeing is just the benefit of that time. It feels good. It’s good to watch him reap the rewards of his effort. He’s very grounded. We’ve got a really small circle around him of mentors, coaches, family, AAU coaches, high school coaches that keep his head small and his feet on the ground.”
Jordan said he plans to visit Indiana next week, and he’s been to Wisconsin for a visit, too.
“They’ve been interested, they both have great coaching staffs, I love going there and visiting, it’s not that far from home,” he said.
Simeon 2015 forward D.J. Williams made his second unofficial visit to the Illinois campus for Saturday’s Street Jam.
He said he’s just enjoying the process but enjoys his time around the Illinois coaching staff.
“I love it, it’s close to home. My family can come to all the games. Coach Groce knows his players real well, and that’s real important, too,” Williams said.
By complete coincidence, former Illini guard D.J. Richardson showed up to the Illini Street Jam dressed in a camouflage shirt, camouflage sneakers and a ball cap with a camouflage bill.
“I dressed early this morning, I didn’t know (anything) about the Army stuff,” Richardson said.
Since he last put on an Illini uniform, Richardson received his degree from Illinois, and he’s been working out with various teams and leagues looking for a professional basketball opportunity. Most recently, the shooting guard worked out with the Utah Jazz.
“I didn’t shoot the ball as well as I wanted to, but at the same time, I did other things well. It was a good experience, I was blessed with the opportunity,” he said.
Options for Richardson include the NBA Development League draft in October or pursuing some options in Europe.
Richardson’s prep school coach Mike Peck at Findlay Prep in Las Vegas is the coach of the Idaho Stampede, and they’ve got the No. 4 pick in the D-League draft.
“You never know,” Richardson said.