John Groce was a great recruiter as an assistant, and he has had immediate success as a head coach. In his first five seasons, Groce has made three NCAA tournaments and won four tourney games.
University of Illinois head coach John Groce nabbed the best point guard left on the market (not named Tyus Jones) on Thursday when Quentin Snider announced he had chosen the Fighting Illini over UCLA.
Snider joins power forwards Leron Black and Michael Finke as the the third commitment to the Illini from the 2014 class. Snider and Black are both ranked in the top 40 of their class, according to ESPN.com's rankings, and Illinois joins North Carolina and Florida as the only schools with multiple top-40 recruits already locked up before practice begins.
Get used to this.
Since Groce has arrived in Champaign, he's totally overhauled the roster. This year's Illini have five transfers—only three will be eligible to play this year—and five freshmen. His 2013 class ranked 15th, per ESPN.com, but you could say it's better than that because of the transfers.
The 2014 class is setting up to be in the top five, potentially in the top three if he lands Chicago big man Cliff Alexander, a consensus top-five recruit.
Even without Alexander, Groce has built a solid rotation for the 2014-15 season that will include at least nine underclassmen he can mold into a winning squad.
I may be burying the lede here, but this is what I'm getting at... Illinois is back. And Groce, 42, is about to become a star.
It's not like no one saw the potential of this coming. Illinois, which is, at worst, a Top 25 job in college basketball, did hire the guy. And he's been doing well for himself as a recruiter for years now.
Before he got his first head coaching job at Ohio University, Groce spent eight years on Thad Matta's staff—one year at Butler, three years at Xavier and four years at Ohio State. No coincidence, Matta had some of his best classes at Ohio State with Groce on his staff.
In 2006, the Buckeyes signed Greg Oden, Mike Conley, David Lighty and Daequan Cook, and Rivals.com that year named Groce the Recruiter of the Year.
Listen to the families of who he has recruited, and they paint the picture of a guy who cares but isn't overbearing, a rarity in the text messaging, social media era.
Here's a quote from Mike Conley's father for that Rivals piece:
... As persistent as he was in following up on everything from sending letters to calling at the right time and being everywhere, you never felt he was being pushy. I don't know how he did it. Other coaches felt they had to use pressure tactics. It takes a special individual to do all that.
Then there's this from Snider's father, Scott, via The Courier-Journal:
It wasn't just talking, then moving on. He had examples of what the plan was and how he planned to work his offense, and that was big for us. … He's so articulate about his details. … He had his whole first year broken down.
And here's a little nugget, from ESPN.com's Adam Finkelstein, on how Groce landed Snider.
Two weeks ago, the point guard took his first official visit to UCLA, alongside ESPN 100 small forward Trevon Bluiett (Indianapolis/Park Tudor), and when Bluiett committed shortly after the visit, it seemed Snider might follow suit.
But Illinois made a late push to get Snider on campus last weekend, allowing it to make a final impression. The Illini followed that up by traveling to Louisville the next day to conduct an in-home visit to help Groce seal the deal.
Groce knows how to play the game, and he has a guard-friendly offense to sell. Not only has he been around great guards at Ohio State in Conley and Evan Turner, but he turned D.J. Cooper at Ohio into one of the best point guards in the country.
Cooper is the only player in the history of the NCAA with with more than 2,000 points, 900 assists, 600 rebounds and 300 steals.
I didn't know much about Groce until 2012 when I covered the NCAA regional in St. Louis where he had guided Ohio to the Sweet 16 and nearly knocked off UNC. I cannot tell you anything he said that week.
Nothing stands out in my memory and I even went back to read the transcript because I was so sold on him after that weekend. I told everyone who would care about such things that the next big thing in coaching was the guy at Ohio.
Groce had endless energy, confidence and passion that was evident. Of course, most coaches are blessed with such traits, but there's something different about the great ones that sets them apart. They have a presence.
Rick Pitino has it. Bill Self has it. Roy Williams has it. Mike Krzyzewski has it, and on and on. You sit in a room with those guys and they own the room. Same with Groce.
He made a believer out of me in St. Louis, and a week later he landed at Illinois.
Groce stepped into a pretty good situation too. Bruce Weber did a nice job in his nine years in Champaign, and it's probably overblown that he got to the national championship game in 2005 with someone else's (Bill Self's) players.
Weber himself landed some talented guys in Demetri McCamey, D.J. Richardson, Brandon Paul and Meyers Leonard. He just could not recruit at Self's level, and he never heard the end of it.
The Illini wanted to find another Self, who could recruit locally and nationally. Groce already has three Chicago guys he's signed, and it's significant that the two best prospects he has landed thus far, Snider and Black, are from outside the state.
Groce has upgraded the talent, and the guy has the coaching chops to take that talent and get Illinois back to being one of the top 10 to 15 programs in the country on an annual basis.
And if you're not buying what Groce has already done in recruiting. If you're not buying what he did at Ohio—three NCAA tournament wins in three years for a program that had not won a tourney game since 1983. And you're not buying his success in Year One with Weber's players—making the round of 32 of the tournament.
Matta, who is only 46, has a coaching tree that includes former Butler coach Brad Stevens and Arizona coach Sean Miller.
Groce has the makeup to be a great one, and his first potentially great team is coming together now that he has his point guard.