CHAMPAIGN – Illini basketball coach John Groce scrapped his plan to meet with the media Monday and in doing so he used the best excuse a coach can offer.
He was busy flying across the country to check out another 5-star recruit.
This time Groce was headed to Lancaster, Texas to size up Elijah Thomas, a 6-8, 240-pound “center” who will be a nice addition to someone’s 2015 recruiting class. Thomas is one of those guys who has a taste for physical contact – he bangs out of obligation and challenge, not out of reluctance.
That it is the head coach showing up in October to evaluate a current high school junior should make an impression on Thomas, who has a long list of powerhouse suitors.
Then it’s back to Champaign as Groce readies his Illini team for the first of two exhibition games on Thursday against McKendree. “We’ve got to play a lot better than we did in the Orange & Blue scrimmage,” he declared.
And then he’ll draw a deep breath and roll out the orange carpet for a recruiting visit that is of national interest.
Big Cliff Alexander of Chicago Curie comes to Champaign this weekend and while it has become fashionable to handicap Illinois’ chances, I’ll just say they are a finalist that could fight to the wire with Bill Self and Kansas.
Groce has his hands full with this season’s Illini basketball team. The odd roster dynamic will make this a never-ending challenge. If he starts the five experienced players on his 10-man squad, every possible reserve will be a player who has never competed in a college basketball game. If he starts a freshman (and he said he’s had freshmen outperform veterans in practice), he’ll have a raw rookie out there as a starter.
Just one more experienced backup could make a huge difference. But, alas, once Oregon State transfer Ahmad Starks had his appeal for instant eligibility denied, that possibility evaporated.
No matter what happens, smart Illini fans aren’t fixated only on this season. They see the bigger picture and in that they see Groce lining up the building blocks that should position Illinois for a prolonged run back into Big Ten contention and, perhaps more important, sustained NCAA Tournament success.
Groce was in Decatur Sunday, doing our radio show in front of a crowd of 300. We’ve been lucky to have had the Illini head coach here each season for more than 20 years now, starting with Lou Henson and continuing with Lon Kruger, Bill Self, Bruce Weber and now Groce. They’ve all been great in front of a crowd.
But two of them absolutely wowed you with their personality and their message. They wowed you in a way that made you clearly see that in a living room or a coach’s office or on a bleacher in a gymnasium, they could deliver a recruiting knockout punch. Those two were Self and Groce.
Self’s charisma is off the charts and he has used it to assemble one blockbuster class after another at Kansas.
Groce’s demeanor and message are different, but no less effective. Groce is more intense, more direct, and he keeps his boundless energy pooled under the surface in a way you can always feel it, even if he turns the boil down to a low simmer.
I’ve seen this before, but as Groce spoke Sunday there was a sincerity to his message that held the crowd of 300 at close attention. When he talks about building a family atmosphere, his are the words of a father who adores two young sons. When he talks about the care with which his staff conducts teaching, they are the words of a man who started out as a high school math instructor.
It’s not hard to see why players gravitate to him and why parents feel secure in sending their sons into his care. If that weren’t the case, Cliff and Lynda Paul would never have watched son Brandon’s one-year experience playing for Groce and followed it with an endorsement for their younger son Darius’ decision to transfer to Illinois from Western Michigan.
They don’t come to play for Groce because it will be easy.
He specializes in pushing players beyond, what he calls, “their comfort zone.
“If you stay inside your comfort zone, you stay small,” he said. “If you move outside your comfort zone, you can become bigger, you can grow.”
I asked freshman guard Jaylon Tate about that as it related to the discomfort of being pushed to uneasy limits during the summer Navy SEALS training.
“It was hard,” Tate said. “But I know why Coach Groce is doing it. He’s doing it because it will make me better.”
That Groce can communicate that message convincingly is what sets him apart as a recruiter.