Tate: Groce's great mission gaining steam
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Even though he’s off on a well-earned family vacation, John Groce took another major step this week — and Illini Nation is holding its collective breath while the future of UI basketball hangs in the balance.
In casting the widest recruiting net in Illini history, Groce was granted a visit by Jawun Evans on Wednesday.
The Dallas point guard reduced the schools under his consideration to Illinois, Oklahoma State, Texas and USC, with various sources projecting that Illinois may be in the lead.
Evans is a 6-foot speedster who moved from Greenville, S.C., when his mother took a job in Dallas after his sophomore season. He helped Kimball High to its third 4A state title in four years last winter. Omitted from his final four was Clemson, which had been reported a strong contender in previous considerations. Evans’ coach, Lamont Simmons, confirmed the four schools.
No date has been announced for Evans’ visit here, but it probably won’t be Sept. 13, as previously rumored, because two-way guard Jimmy Whitt of Columbia, Mo., has selected that date.
The football weekends will be marked by a whirlwind series of official visits — Stevenson point guard Jalen Brunson comes to campus Aug. 29-31, Texas center Elijah Thomas is tabbed for Sept. 19-21, and Oklahoma wing Shake Milton is slated for Oct. 3-5. Brunson also has set trips to Villanova, Temple and Purdue.
Behind the buzz
The Illini staff is deeply invested in Evans, traveling to see him in Texas and keeping close track of him as they spread out — from Los Angeles to Atlanta to Philadelphia, etc. — on the AAU circuit last month.
His importance is reflected in several ways:
(1) With Quentin Snider reverting to Louisville last November, Illinois desperately needs a point guard to join then-junior Jaylon Tate when the renovated State Farm Center opens in 2015-16;
(2) The speedy Evans is touted for his breakaway skills and has drawn praise this summer for developing strong play in the halfcourt;
(3) He is not expected to be a “one-and-done,” as is the case with others at his level;
(4) Because he played AAU ball with Thomas, talk circulated that they might attend the same university. The only schools on both their lists are Illinois and Oklahoma State. Look for Evans to visit Illinois prior to Thomas.
The ranking game
Joe Henricksen of City/Suburban Hoops Report rates Brunson as the state’s No. 1 player, followed by Kentucky commit Charles Matthews of St. Rita, and two Illini commits — D.J. Williams of Simeon and Aaron Jordan of Plainfield East.
Brunson set a state tournament record with 56 points in a 75-68 loss to Duke-bound Jahlil Okafor and Whitney Young. It was a performance for the ages.
Based on summer showings, various evaluators have moved Evans alongside Brunson as two of the leading point guards in the country. Brunson is rated No. 15 in the senior class nationally and the top player under 6-3. Evans is rated No. 32 overall.
Mind on the future
With all this furor about building for 2015-16, what must an Illini senior be thinking? And particularly one who plays point guard. Ahmad Starks, projected to share time with fourth-year regular Tracy Abrams, addressed the subject after a workout Wednesday.
“When recruits visit, we just hang out with them and make sure they have a good time,” Starks said. “We let them know what’s happening on and off the court. We don’t push them to commit. The coaches handle that part.”
Starks wasn’t recruited like most preps. His family was close to the Craig Robinson family in Chicago, well before Robinson became coach at Oregon State. The family included Robinson’s sister, Michelle Obama.
“My decision to attend Oregon State came in my sophomore year (at Whitney Young) and was more of a family decision,” Starks said. “We knew the Robinsons, and I played soccer with his son. It seemed like a great opportunity.”
He averaged 10.2 points over 97 games, electing to transfer last year to be closer to his ailing (dementia) grandmother in Chicago. The NCAA denied his request for immediate eligibility.
“I was heartbroken when I couldn’t play,” Starks said, “but it is a blessing in disguise. I am much stronger, my vertical jump has improved and I know the system better. I made 14,000 shots this summer.”
He’ll help to hold the fort until the more highly touted recruits arrive, assuming Groce can complete the great mission he has set out upon.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.