Tate: Don't fret just yet
When you purchase a hot dog at the Farm today, don’t ask about Oscar Mayer’s sausage ingredients. You don’t want to know.
And when you sit down to watch the basketball game, don’t ask how the teams were formed. Just enjoy the athleticism and don’t think about it.
Recruiting can be a nasty, unsavory and even unscrupulous business and, for Illinoisans consumed by it, Friday was a Bad Day at Black Rock. The Illini discovered once again that when you enter the trenches with the Big Boys, you’d better arm yourself with howitzers and not pop guns. In this business, slick outweighs sincere, and next season is an afterthought compared to the NBA.
On this subject, UI athletic director Mike Thomas said: “It’s a lot different when you’re recruiting kids in the Top 10 or 15, as opposed to those farther down the line.”
Coach John Groce had Chicago Curie powerhouse Cliff Alexander leaning his way when Monday dawned and lost him to Kansas on Friday. And Illinois had an oral commitment from Louisville Ballard point guard Quentin Snider, only to see him revert back to the national champion Louisville Cardinals.
No need for Illinoisans to worry further about a shortage of basketball scholarships. As it now stands, Groce has 13 players for 13 scholarships next season, and he won’t look back on the ones that got away.
Groce declined to discuss Alexander and Snider Saturday, but was his typically fiery self as he referred to a Chicago headline stating Illinois “was put in its place.”
“I’ll tell you what place we’re in,” he said, “and it’s a great place ... we’ve made strides and improvement in a lot of areas ... we have athletes who have put us in position to do something special.”
However, there is no denying that well-constructed dominoes collapsed in the Alexander case after weeks in which the big guy seemed increasingly favorable to the state university.
Kansas coach Bill Self had targeted Whitney Young’s Jahlil Okafor as his No. 1 priority, and the nation’s premier prep center boiled it down to Duke and Kansas. When Self learned early in the week that Okafor and his Minnesota backcourt buddy, Tyus Jones, had settled on Duke, Self reversed field and initiated a full-court press for Alexander.
Fate would have it that Self and the large Kansas contingent were in Chicago for Tuesday’s prestigious United Center showdown with Duke, which the Jayhawks won. It was a recruiting boost of major proportions, right in Alexander’s back yard. By mid-day Thursday, the turnaround had been completed ... and the Illini once again found themselves overmatched in head-to-head jousts with their former coach.
Snider may have been even more important for Illinois because, unlike Alexander, he doesn’t figure to be one-and-done.
In both cases, family considerations played a large role, Alexander stating: “This is best for me and my family.”
Skeptics will have various interpretations as to what that actually means in this sometimes-corrupt system.
Despite the setback, Groce has accomplished too much in a short time to consider it permanent.
In less than 18 months on campus, the UI’s whirling dervish has changed the face of Illini basketball. He has added 14 new players, counting signees Leron Black and Mike Finke and the recently committed Simeon junior, D.J. Williams.
Does anyone think Shaka Smart or Brad Stevens could have done better?
A few years back and frequently through history, the Illini tentacles were severed at state borders and weak in Chicago.
Groce changed that even as our eastern neighbor remains as cold as Iceland (Notre Dame won out for Mishawaka’s Demetrius Jackson). Beginning with Sam McLaurin last season, Groce has attracted six experienced transfers from other universities, five of whom averaged double figures in previous seasons. He has four Chicago Public League products here or on the way, attracted three tall out-of-staters, and added the premier prospect from Greater St. Louis in 2012 Metro Player of the Year Malcolm Hill.
Groce’s salesmanship was most evident when Black and Snider re-opened their recruiting after decommitting from Baylor and Louisville, respectively. In revealing their interests, neither initially listed Illinois. Groce went from zero to 65 MPH in a finger-snap, and might have landed both if guard JaQuan Lyle hadn’t decommitted from Louisville in mid-September, bringing about Rick Pitino’s renewed interest in Snider.
Nor did Groce have a head start with Alexander, one of the most desired big men in the country. The ice breaker for Groce in Chicago was Kendrick Nunn, No. 2 player behind Jabari Parker at Simeon.
Nunn has yet to make an impact -- he played just two minutes in Wednesday’s 64-52 defeat of Valparaiso -- but his announcement put Illinois in solid with Simeon coach Robert Smith and, when the Jackson quest went sour in northern Indiana, Groce took Simeon point guard Jaylon Tate. These led directly to the lanky junior, Williams. Nor should we overlook Ahmad Starks, a Whitney Young product who had 216 assists and averaged 10.2 points over three season at Oregon State.
There’s be more disappointments because Groce is even now in the chase for three of the Top 15 players in the class of 2015.
Illinois is once again a popular landing place, a fact displayed by the arrival of 14 players in a year and a half. Will there be more disappointments? Absolutely. As Thomas noted, that’s bound to happen when you seek the best, and Groce is even now deeply engaged with three of the nation’s Top 15 players in the class of 2015.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.