Current recruiting season lacks familiar buzz


By Alex Roux

During the first three summers of the John Groce era,
recruiting was all the rage.

Each year, the Illini seemed to have legitimate shots at
landing future McDonald’s All-Americans, like Demetrius Jackson, Cliff Alexander
and Jawun Evans. Those recruitments didn’t work out, and the ensuing let-downs, combined with a change in approach from Groce, have resulted in a sort of hoops
recruiting hangover for Illini fans.

As those same fans have painfully learned lately, all the
Illini-hype in the recruiting world might surround one player, only to see him commit elsewhere. We’ve seen the opposite of this scenario play out as well, as
it’s still possible to land very good players without agonizing over every
tweet from a target’s thumbs. Groce proved this last year when he landed Jalen
Coleman-Lands (a very good player) with little prior fanfare.

On the surface, Groce’s top recruiting targets in 2016
differ from his previous ones in that they have fewer stars by their name in
the rankings. There are several reasons for this, the first being that the 2016
in-state class is considerably weaker than in year’s past. There are no Cliff Alexanders,
no Jalen Brunsons, and no Charles Matthews’ for the Illini to conveniently
pursue in their own backyard.

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Groce has shown that he certainly isn’t afraid to look
outside the state for recruits, but he still appears to be actively courting
only one top-50 player (point guard Alterique Gilbert) in the upcoming class.
The rest of the Illini targets sit in the 50-150 range on most ranking
services, including Charlie Moore, Xavier Simpson, Zach Norvell and Barret
Benson. These guys are good basketball players, and Groce could plug some
important holes by landing the right combination of them. But absent from the
list are recruits that could be considered program-changing.

Another reason for not going “all-in” on five star talent in
the ‘16 class could be timing. At this time one year ago, Groce had already
hauled in DJ Williams and Aaron Jordan, giving him flexibility to, as he puts
it, “swing for the fences.” His ‘16 class is currently barren, and he likely
wants to take the less-risky route of locking down capable players, rather than
hoping NBA talent will choose a school that has appeared in the last two NITs.

After all, the “swing” strategy hasn’t worked very well for
Groce up to this point at Illinois. It’s not all his fault, as he’s had his
share of bad breaks with this approach. Quentin Snider changed his mind, Cliff Alexander changed his hat, and Tracy Abrams tore his ACL, which likely made the
future backcourt look less appealing to a 2015 recruit or two.  Program-changing classes that fans dared to
dream of have yet to materialize, so it makes sense that Groce would reel in
his approach. Success can be built on stability rather than five-star talent,
as Wisconsin and Michigan State have proven over the years.

While it may seem like there’s a lull in meaningful
recruiting action, the 2017 class will probably have fans swept up in that
familiar recruiting hysteria a year from now. The ‘17 in-state class is loaded,
and studs like Jeremiah Tilmon (East St. Louis), Da’Monte Williams (Peoria
Manual), Jordan Goodwin (Belleville Althoff), Zach Norvell (Chicago Simeon) and
Justin Smith (Stevenson) have all been on campus in the last couple of weeks. Seven
in-state 2017 prospects currently have Illini offers, and Groce has hosted highly-ranked
Indianapolis products Jaren Jackson, Jr. and Paul Scruggs as well.

But in order to truly inject some hype back into the recruiting
game, Groce and his guys will have to figure out the actual game on the court.
The ’16 and ’17 classes likely won’t be pretty for the Illini if Groce isn’t
around to see it, which is an unfortunate possibility if he falls short of the
NCAAs for a third straight year.

At this point, fans would gladly take success on the court
before a splash in recruiting.

Alex is a senior in AHS.

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