LoVett snub a reminder of Groce’s point guard problem


Folake Osibodu | Photo editor

Illinois’ head coach John Groce claps after a Michigan turnover during the game at United Center in Chicago, Illinois during the Big Ten Tournament on Thursday, March 12, 2015. 

By Alex Roux

Late Wednesday evening, Illinois men’s basketball fans were issued an uncomfortable reminder.

Like a mountain of dirty dishes that eventually becomes too big to ignore, Illini fans were forced to stare down the bare spot in their future point guard cupboard when 2015 target Marcus LoVett, Jr. tweeted that he had signed with St. John’s. As it stands now, the Illini have not yet recruited a point guard to run the show past Jaylon Tate’s graduation in 2017.

LoVett’s murky recruitment remained a mystery until the very end, though the uncertainty was rooted more in the timing than the destination. The writing on the wall indicated that the outcome wasn’t too much of a surprise. Illinois head coach John Groce had been dangling his last available scholarship for next season in front of other targets, including transfer point guards Dylan Ennis and Johnny Hill. LoVett had previously tweeted that St. John’s ranked higher on his preference list than Illinois and didn’t seem to show much interest other than displaying photo-shopped images of himself in Illini jerseys on social media.

It’s not clear why LoVett, who was seemingly gift-wrapped in orange and blue wrapping paper, didn’t pull the trigger on the Illini. After transferring to Chicago’s Morgan Park High School from California for his senior season, the 6-foot point guard electrified the Chicago Public League with dazzling displays of ball-handling wizardry and a sweet left-handed stroke. It seemed like LoVett would be a perfect fit at Illinois, with John Groce needing a long-term solution at point guard and the fan base needing a shot in the arm.

But although Groce couldn’t lock LoVett down, it would be hard-pressed to lay the majority of the blame on his shoulders in this particular case. There were other factors complicating the recruitment, most notably the uncertainty of whether or not LoVett could even qualify academically to play college basketball (he bounced between multiple high schools in his four year tenure).

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Maybe the lights just weren’t bright enough in Champaign for LoVett, who lived up to his “Bright Lights” moniker this past season and will be playing in the world’s most famous arena when he suits up for St. John’s.

The problem for the Illini isn’t that they didn’t land LoVett. The problem is that they’re in a position where they almost couldn’t afford not to. Groce is entering his fourth season at Illinois, and to this day, his only true point guard signee is Tate, who averaged 3.6 points and 2.9 assists last season and is already halfway through his college career. Tracy Abrams and Ahmad Starks have manned the “1” position during Groce’s tenure, but they fit the shooting guard mold more-so than at point.

To be fair, Groce has had some pretty poor luck in his search for floor generals. Demetrius Jackson was his first high-profile point guard target, but couldn’t be swayed from committing to his hometown school Notre Dame, which has worked out well for Jackson so far. Groce landed a verbal commitment from four-star point guard Quentin Snider the following year, only to lose him on signing day to Rick Pitino and Snider’s hometown team, Louisville.

So Groce has been bitten by the homesickness bug more than once, and it seems as though he was bitten by the injury bug too. During the heat of his pursuit of McDonald’s All-American point guard Jawun Evans last fall, Abrams tore his ACL, meaning he would still be on the roster during Evans’ freshman year. And even though Evans would tell you that he’s not afraid of competition, the tone of his recruitment seemed to change the moment he learned that Abrams would be back. Evans eventually committed to Oklahoma State.

Hindsight is always 20-20, and it can be argued that Groce should have been focusing the majority of his efforts on “second-tier” point guard targets, rather than McDonald’s All-Americans like Snider, Evans and Jalen Brunson. But Groce talks about how he likes to “swing for the fences,” and so far, he hasn’t come close to hitting a home run at the point.

It’s perplexing, really, that Groce isn’t hauling in point guards by the bundle, much less attracting at least one per class. His offense is very point-guard centric, and it’s no secret that he promises immediate playing time to point guard recruits. He’s assembled a roster of talented wings and scoring big men for potential point guards to dish to, but couldn’t get one to join this year’s top-20 ranked class which includes shooters like Aaron Jordan and Jalen Coleman-Lands.

The Illini will begin Groce’s fourth year with a mix of Tate, Abrams and maybe Coleman-Lands sharing the ball-handling duties, with an uncertain future beyond that. Maybe Groce will land a point guard in the 2016 class, or maybe he’ll continue to plug roster holes with transfers like he’s done before.

Either way, it’s an issue that will be discussed ad nauseam until Groce silences the critics, and an issue that not many people saw coming when he was hired three years ago.

Alex is a junior in AHS.

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Tweet: Marcus LoVett, Jr. snub highlights Groce’s point guard problem, writes @aroux94.