Groce breaking boundaries in search for talent

Groce breaking boundaries in search for talent

For a century and more, the Illini basketball program has been Lincoln Land-locked.
Young Hoosier jump-shooters have always worn western blinders. Iowa preps view the land east of the Quad Cities as toxic. When’s the last time anyone north of Beloit wandered down here? And so on.

Illinois prep products have stocked the UI roster and have formed a strong nucleus for every successful run.

That’s what makes this recruiting season so special ... and nerve-wracking. Illini fans have never seen anything like it.

For a century and more, the Illini basketball program has been Lincoln Land-locked.

Young Hoosier jump-shooters have always worn western blinders. Iowa preps view the land east of the Quad Cities as toxic. When’s the last time anyone north of Beloit wandered down here? And so on.

Illinois prep products have stocked the UI roster and have formed a strong nucleus for every successful run.

That’s what makes this recruiting season so special ... and nerve-wracking. Illini fans have never seen anything like it.

Actually, we had a warning. Coach John Groce had previously shown a tendency to spread his wings. He dipped quickly into the transfer market, and he landed two tall rookies last year from Ohio (Maverick Morgan) and New Jersey (Austin Colbert).

More recently, Groce became recognized as a serious contender in the national market by landing Memphis forward Leron Black.

The summer arrival of Black — Gatorade’s Player of the Year in Tennessee — has budding blue-chippers taking a new look at the UI.
With apologies to Tyler Griffey, Mike Davis and a few others, Black projects as the

UI’s most significant out-of-state prep since Deron Williams arrived from Texas in 2002.

Aiming high
The immediate possibilities are mind-boggling. If successful, Groce’s quest could quiet grumbling over seat changes in 2015-16, and sell out expensive suites and boxes at State Farm Center ... or, if Groce’s efforts fall short (in recruiting, second doesn’t count), Illini fans would feel the same rejection as when Cliff Alexander and Quentin Snider skedaddled.

To say Illini Nation is holding its collective breath is an understatement.
Aside from Stevenson High guard Jalen Brunson — tops on Groce’s list — the Illini are in the chase for at least a dozen Top 75 non-Illinoisans, according to Rivals.com.

Groce created a solid base with commitments from Simeon’s D.J. Williams and Plainfield East’s Aaron Jordan, ranked Nos. 58 and 65 by Rivals. Both performed this summer even better than expected. Now he is going for the jugular. The goal is to add three more members to arrive simultaneously with the completed renovation of the Farm in late 2015.

This is critical stuff. Whether you consider Groce’s proposed $100,000 raise excessive or miniscule (that’s just a 6 percent bump on $1.6M), the coach’s importance in this quest is obvious. In the marketplace that has evolved, he is worth every penny ... and more.

Yes, the pay of coaches is outrageous, but if Coach K is getting $7 million, and Tom Izzo and Thad Matta are receiving $4 million ... and if dozens are approaching or topping $2 million, what is Mike Thomas supposed to do?

Coming and going
How, you might be wondering, does it work when a coach sends out so many offers with only three available scholarships?

OK, let’s take the center position. With so many elite programs spanning from UCLA to UConn to Florida, there aren’t nearly enough postmen to go around, and no senior centers appear worthy from this state. Groce has reportedly offered 6-foot-9 Elijah Thomas (No. 11 by Rivals.com) from Lancaster, Texas, 6-foot-10 Diamond Stone (No. 6) from Milwaukee, 7-foot Josh Sharma (No. 75) from Northfield, Mass., 6-foot-8 Caleb Swanigan (No. 20) from Fort Wayne, Ind., and 6-foot-11 Doral Moore (No. 38) from Locust Grove, Ga.

Considering the many options these young giants have, it would be a remarkable accomplishment to attract one of them.

If one commits, the emphasis would return to the point guard position where Brunson, Texan Jawun Evans and Missourian Jimmy Whitt top the list. One is essential because, when Tracy Abrams and Ahmad Starks graduate, the only point guard on scholarship in 2015-16 will be Jaylon Tate.

At the 2-3-4 positions, Illinois would be overjoyed to take in one of those offered — 6-foot-9 Carlton Bragg of Cleveland, 6-foot-5 Shake Milton of Owassa, Okla., 6-foot-3 Jalen Coleman of LaPorte La Lumiere or 6-foot-6 Montaque Gill-Caeser of Huntington, W.Va.

Giving it a shot
This wide net is a new approach for an Illini coach.

Looking back, five native Illinoisans made up the 1943 Whiz Kids, a war-interrupted unit that went 12-0 in the Big Ten (11 of those wins by double figures, the last five by scores of 56-35, 67-43, 50-26, 86-44 and 92-25).

It was a deeply embedded tradition for the UI to capitalize on Prairie State products. And it continued through the 48 seasons of home towner Harry Combes, Kankakee’s Harv Schmidt and reborn Illinoisan Lou Henson.

By contrast, Iowa’s Hawkeyes have always flown far and wide for talent. Indiana U. scanned the countryside, frequently denting its western border. Michigan’s Wolverines often capitalized on the football program’s national reputation. All perennial powers recruit coast to coast.

But here: Of 70 athletes listed as “starters” from 1947-48 through 1959-60, all prepped in Illinois (Brooklyn’s Bill Burwell broke the spell in 1960-61). Efforts to expand have been sporadic, some successful, some not. New Jersey’s Tal Brody contributed to three seasons of explosive scoring in the 1960s. But from Nick Weatherspoon and Nick Conner (both from Ohio) through Rich Jones (Memphis) and Billy Morris (St. Louis), the vast majority were from Illinois.

Moving ahead, the top 10 scorers on each of Henson’s 1984 Big Ten co-champions and his 1989 Flyin’ Illini were Illinoisans. Lon Kruger built his 1998 Big Ten co-champs around five seniors from the state, and turned over Lincoln’s Brian Cook and Peorians Frank Williams, Marcus Griffin and Sergio McClain to coach Bill Self.

Self might have changed the policy if he had stayed longer because he chased the likes of Kelenna Azubuike, Shelden Williams and Charlie Villanueva (who verbally committed) before moving to Kansas. And Bruce Weber made multiple overtures but was more successful in attracting in-staters like Brian Randle, Shaun Pruitt, Rich McBride, Demetri McCamey, Mike Tisdale and Mike Cole.

Of the top eight players Weber turned over to Groce, only Griffey (St. Louis) didn’t play high school basketball in Illinois at some point.

You won’t see that again if Groce has his way. Hang the cost, it is time to test UI biceps in the national market.

Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at ltate@news-gazette.com.

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Moonpie wrote on July 21, 2014 at 11:07 am

"If successful" are the key words and so far Groce has not nabbed the elite talent. And apparently, for Sir Legend Tate, selling expensive party suites to rich folks is the goal of Illini hoops. As for the regular folks in just common seats -- who needs them and their tendency to disagree with Tate the Elder?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

BlahBlahBlah2013 wrote on July 22, 2014 at 8:07 am

First off let me say you would be hard pressed to find a bigger critic of Illinois athletics than myself. Football...dont' even get me started. And basketball with it's once every 20 year successful season. It's almost as hard being an Illinois fan as I can imagine it is being a Cubs fan.


But if there's a way out of this mediocrity it's in casting a wider net in recruiting. If the goal is to build the best team possible, you can't have blinders on. It's a feel good story to hear of a player from central Illinois coming to play for the U of I basketball team but honestly, players from this area aren't going to take you deep into the NCAA tournament.


I like Groce. I like his passion and his intensity. I also think he's pretty smart. The last great team was recruited by Bill Self. How? Bill Self had a big, passionate personality and he was a salesman. Bruce Weber was not. A great guy but he was never going to build an elite basketball program. Groce has the potential of a Bill Self though. At least in my opinion.


I wish him luck. He'll definitley need it.