CHAMPAIGN — In the recruiting battle for Demetrius Jackson, Illini coach John Groce led a spirited comeback that reduced a crowded field of pursuers to just two schools.
Having edged ahead of Kansas in the battle for the coveted point guard, Groce made sure this one became a buzzer beater.
But if it came down to a final shot, Groce’s jumper rimmed out Thursday when Notre Dame received a verbal commitment from the nation’s 19th-ranked prep prospect for the Class of 2013.
In the end, Groce was not able to overcome the Fighting Irish’s No. 1 advantage — Jackson, who plays for Marian High School in Mishawaka, Ind., lives just minutes from the Notre Dame campus.
Since point guard is the most important position for any John Groce-coached basketball team, Jackson became the No. 1 recruiting target for Illinois’ new head coach. Groce took over in March and has been charged with jump-starting a program that has won just one NCAA Tournament game in the past six seasons.
After recently landing a commitment from Chicago Simeon combo guard Kendrick Nunn, hopes were high that Groce might add to a nationally ranked recruiting class by convincing Jackson to journey away from home. While the Irish pitched Jackson on the benefits of staying close and being a hometown hero, Illinois told him he could be the poster child for a resurgence that would make Illinois a national power again.
For Jackson, who admitted he has had Irish fans in his ear for years, hometown hero must have sounded irresistible.
Word of Jackson’s decision was already out by the time he made his “announcement” on an ESPNU television show late Thursday afternoon. “There was not a lot of pressure,” to stay close to home, Jackson said. “I had a lot of support and they said they would support my decision either way.”
Even without Jackson, Groce’s three-person 2013 recruiting class was ranked No. 15 in the country this week. That class includes Nunn, wing player Malcolm Hill of Belleville East and center Maverick Morgan of Springboro, Ohio.
Groce has also added two college transfers since arriving.
Inside player Sam McLauren of Coastal Carolina will be a part of the rotation this season. And Champaign’s Ravonte Rice, who transferred from Drake, will be eligible next season.
Groce and the Illini are still in the running for guard Xavier Rathan-Mayes, a Canadian who is attending Huntington (W. Va.) Prep. He visited Illinois on Sept. 22 and is the 24th-ranked prospect in the country.
The other two schools Rathan-Mayes is said to be considering are Florida State and Connecticut. He visited Florida State on Sept. 1 and is visiting Connecticut this weekend.
Rathan-Mayes’ father played at Florida State and he has family living in Connecticut.
Regardless of what Rathan-Mayes does, Groce must still address the point guard position.
This season, Tracy Abrams will be the primary point guard with Brandon Paul helping at the spot. But there’s not a natural, attacking, scoring point guard currently in the program who fits what Groce is looking for.
With Jackson no longer in play, one possibility is Dayshon Smith, a 6-3 point guard from the Bronx, N.Y. who is now attending Putnam Science Academy in Connecticut. His stock has been on the rise after a strong summer and he’s slated to make a visit to Champaign in October.
Earlier this week, Groce extended a scholarship offer to Class of 2014 power forward Michael Finke of Champaign Centennial. The 6-9 junior is the son of former Casey High School and University of Illinois football and basketball player, Jeff Finke, who also went on to briefly play fastpitch softball for the Decatur Pride.
Finke is a 6-foot-9 prospect who also has offers from Wisconsin and Iowa.
While Notre Dame is not currently on the Illinois schedule (the schools have not met since Notre Dame won an NCAA Tournament contest in Bill Self’s final game as Illini coach on March 22, 2003), the schools could conceivably meet now that the Irish are joining the Atlantic Coast Conference.
A matchup in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge seems like a natural, especially since the networks would no doubt like to highlight the Demetrius Jackson angle.