Illini recruiting watch: Carlton Bragg


It’s no secret Illinois head coach John Groce swings for the fences when he recruits.

As the Illini continue to be in the conversation for some of the nation’s best hoops talent, they find themselves on recruits’ lists of schools alongside some of the most storied programs in the country.

Kentucky. Kansas. UCLA.

Those three basketball powerhouses are the schools the Illini are up against in the recruitment of Carlton Bragg, a skilled 6-foot-8 forward out of Villa Angela-St. Joseph High School in Cleveland. Though Bragg’s current list of options might be intimidating to Illini fans, they’ll have to get used to battling these blue-blood programs for recruits as long as Groce is in charge.

Kentucky, Kansas and UCLA can sell themselves pretty well. They’re on ESPN constantly. They have midnight madness and legendary arenas and dozens of lottery picks drafted into the NBA. They have banners.

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While Illinois is historically a good program, it doesn’t stack up with these types of programs. When Groce swings for the fences against them, he’s swinging with a stick, and the blue bloods have aluminum bats. So to have a chance with a guy like Bragg, Groce and his staff have to go above and beyond.

According to Bragg’s mentor, Michael Graves, Groce and his staff have kept up constant communication since they began recruiting him as a high school freshman. Groce’s relentless pursuit of Bragg has built up a trust and familiarity between both parties that has kept Illinois in the hunt.

“Groce hangs his hat on the trust factor,” Graves said. “You know, they’ve been there from the beginning, you can trust him and they haven’t missed an AAU game in two years.”

Two years. Considering many AAU teams play at least fifty games a season, you can imagine the amount of time Groce and his staff have dedicated to ensuring that Bragg knows he’s a top priority.

Bragg has stood out at events such as the NBPA Top 100 camp, which lets the best players in the country square off against each other. Bragg is currently ranked as the No. 18 player in ESPN’s top 100 and has drawn comparisons to Carmelo Anthony.

So, where does Groce stand in the process of luring the next Melo to Champaign? He paid a visit to Bragg’s home in Ohio on Sept. 30, a setting where Groce seems to excel.

Graves said Groce carried a “much stronger tone” than some of the other coaches that had been in to visit Bragg previously.

“On the in-home visit they did a very good job on their presentation,” Graves added. “Like I said, the trust factor, the familiarity with the coaches. They’ve recruited Carlton like Carlton is their top priority.”

It’s in those settings that Groce must differentiate Illinois from the likes of Bill Self and John Calipari. Bragg took an unofficial visit to Kansas’ midnight madness last weekend and will take an unofficial to Kentucky’s this weekend. Illinois can’t currently compete with the spectacle of those events, so Groce must sell a vision for the future.

In Bragg’s case, that vision can be aided by present results. With Bragg making his decision in the spring, this upcoming Illini basketball season has the potential to boost Illinois’ national relevancy, perhaps enough to entice Bragg.

“That can help, yeah,” Graves responded when asked if on-court success for the Illini this season could potentially sway Bragg. “Everybody wants to go to a winner.”

With the recent misses on elite guards Jawun Evans and Jalen Brunson, landing Bragg might seem like a long shot. But Graves insisted Bragg is seriously considering the Illini.

“They’ve done a great job, and we wouldn’t put them in the final four or five schools if we didn’t think there’s a good chance that Carlton would go there,” Graves said.  

Though Bragg is familiar with Groce by this point, he’ll have the chance to increase his familiarity with the program when he takes his official visit to the Illinois campus, which has yet to be scheduled. Graves said that between the recent unofficial visits and Bragg’s high school season coming up, they haven’t had a chance to schedule an Illini official just yet, but that they will make it to campus at some point.

Groce’s dedication has gotten him far with Bragg, and don’t expect the coach to let up as the college season nears. The official visit to Illinois will be the next big step for Groce in the Bragg sweepstakes.

“Groce has invested in him really well,” Graves said. “We look forward to getting down there and checking the school out.”

Alex is a junior in AHS. He can be reached at [email protected] and on Twitter @aroux94