One thing we all understand when it comes to recruiting: It doesn’t really matter how a class sounds on signing day because we’ll assess, re-assess and re-assess again along the way, then months or years from now pronounce a class great, good or lousy based on its achievement.
That said, I think John Groce and his staff did a terrific job in assembling their first University of Illinois recruiting class because the five high school players he signed on Wednesday cover every position on the floor and because he brought in key kids from a critical program in Chicago, saved the best recruiting leftover from the Bruce Weber regime, nailed down one he had a relationship with from his days at Ohio University then cast lines in the water nationally and hooked a pretty nice keeper fish from the East Coast.
True, he did not get a couple of other whopper-size fish from out-of-state. But he was a finalist for each and that showed me he’s fearless when it comes to trying and he’s effective when it comes to selling his vision.
For starters, it was important to hang onto Malcolm Hill from Belleville East. The kid is an explosive wing coming off a summer injury that prevented him from the kind of exposure that would have raised his national rating. Who cares? As long as he is physically ready to go for his senior year – and it sounds like he is – that’s all that should matter. And Weber said it was important to Hill that he play for the state school. That should always be celebrated.
Then everyone was going to judge this class based on whether Groce was able to mine any talent in Chicago. Not only did he get a good player, he got one of the best from arguably the city’s best high school program – Chicago Simeon. Kendrick Nunn was a huge “get” when it happened and he remains the centerpiece of this class. And Groce scooped up his teammate, Jaylon Tate, the point guard, whose stock climbed over the summer.
So whatever chilly feelings there may once have been between Simeon coach Robert Smith following Groce’s hiring or Groce’s decision not to add Smith to his staff, those things seem to have been smoothed over rather nicely.
Then Groce turned to the state of Ohio to find a big man he’d been sizing up when he was at Ohio University. Maverick Morgan, a 6-10, 240-pounder, fits Groce’s system and has a growing Big Ten body.
And the cherry on the sundae was Monday’s commitment from Austin Colbert, the 6-9 forward from New Jersey.
This kid truly did climb aboard on a leap of faith. It says a lot about how much trust he has placed in Groce, because Colbert has no history with Illinois (the state or the school), no past relationship with the coach and had people around him tugging at him to stay out East. The kid believed in Groce and bought in totally.
Thumbs up to the Illini assistant coaches and support staff, too, because by all accounts, they made every unofficial visit, official visit, mailing and phone call count. They researched prospects, built relationships with the people in their worlds that matter, then presented a sales pitch that was tailored to each individual. The struck chords with players, their families and their coaches.
I think it bodes well for the future, and Groce said as much during Wednesday’s teleconference from Honolulu, when he said word of mouth from these current recruits is already helping with players who will be a part of future classes.
Before we get carried away, let’s remember a couple of things:
One, the current team (2-0) is going to lose games and encounter hardship. That should be a given. So remember not to over-react when it happens, unless it’s a repeat of last year when one loss turns into 12 losses in 14 games.
Two, not every recruit blossoms the way you might hope. But if Groce and his staff have done their work, there will be some who are better than we dared to imagine.
And, finally, this point: I believe over time, we’ll see that Groce and his staff are very good at growing their talent. In other words, players will improve from season to season, being forced to work on their weaknesses and round into more complete players.
Add Drake transfer Ray Rice to the mix for next season and we’ll be looking at six new faces when 2013-14 tips off.