Illini fans’ wait for elite recruiting class nears a decade and a half

Illinois head coach John Groce makes a call to the team during the game against Wisconsin at the Kohl Center in Madison, Wisc. on Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2014. The Illini lost, 95-70.

By Alex Roux

The dynamic between being an Illinois football fan and an Illinois basketball fan is very different.

Illini football fans have been worn down after decades of inconsistency and false hope. It takes years to build a solid football program, and even when you think the Illini could be on the right track, they get rolled like they did Saturday at North Carolina.

Basketball is different. Unlike football, true freshmen often have a profound impact on the game. If your team is struggling, success is conceivably just a year or two away if you can get some commitments from big-time recruits. It’s easy for Illini hoops fans to fall victim to that classic Cubs fan’s “wait ‘til next year” mentality when it comes to recruiting. There’s so much high school talent in the state and in the Midwest, surely Illinois can land a dream class soon, right?

It hasn’t happened since 2002. That year, a class of Dee Brown, Deron Williams, James Augustine and Aaron Spears stepped on campus. I can still remember going to the Orange and Blue Scrimmage that year and asking my dad, “Are these guys gonna be good?”

Besides Aaron Spears, I think their college careers turned out all right.

Illini fans hoped that the 2009 class would elevate the program as well. Brandon Paul, Joe Bertrand, Tyler Griffey and D.J. Richardson collectively brought some hype, they brought some success, but ultimately weren’t able to lift the program back to elite status.

For the most part, Illinois doesn’t get McDonald’s All-Americans. Brown earned the honor, and so did Jereme Richmond. But since falling out of the upper echelon of college basketball in 2006, Illinois has mostly landed pretty good, not great, players and has fielded decent, but not great teams. Guys who were supposed to be major contributors over the last decade like Jamar Smith, Crandall Head, Richmond and most recently Darius Paul, never panned out.

Since head coach John Groce took over in 2012, he’s been trying to get the program back on solid footing. Illini fans thought an elite recruiting class was possible in both 2013 and 2014, and to be fair, it did seem realistic. Quentin Snider, Cliff Alexander, Elijah Thomas, Jalen Brunson and Jawun Evans just had other ideas.

Groce has landed some good players since he took over. Kendrick Nunn and Malcolm Hill are poised for huge junior seasons, and Jalen Coleman-Lands and Leron Black could both be All-Big Ten players at some point down the road. Groce also restored some faith within the fan base last week when point guard Te’Jon Lucas committed to the Illini.

Illinois wasn’t destined to land a possible program-altering class in 2016, as the in-state and regional talent is weaker than usual. Small forward Xavier Sneed from the St. Louis area is still a realistic get for Groce, but there doesn’t appear to be much beyond that at this point. Chicago prospects and AAU teammates Charlie Moore and Zach Norvell are likely headed elsewhere.

Groce will still push to land another player or two in the 2016 class, but any developments probably won’t be anything earth-shattering.

So it’s hard to blame Illini fans for looking ahead to the 2017 class, which is stacked with talented, in-state hoopers who have gotten to know Groce and his vision for the program. Guys like Da’Monte Williams, Jeremiah Tilmon, Jordan Goodwin and several others have already visited campus, planting new seeds of promise for the future.

Next year we could be talking about the first truly great Illini recruiting class in 15 years. Or maybe we’ll be lamenting the ones that got away.

Not all programs need elite recruiting classes to succeed. But Illini fans have seen firsthand the impact they can have.

Alex is a senior in AHS
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