As the sun sets early on yet another Illinois Fighting Illini football season, there is a bright light shining on the Illinois basketball program.
With the recent verbal commitment from D.J. Williams of Simeon High School in Chicago, head coach John Groce has now landed three consensus top 50 recruits in the past two months. He picked up 6'7" forward Leron Black of Memphis, Tennessee and 6'1" guard Quentin Snider of Louisville, Kentucky in September as part of the 2014 class and reeled in Williams this past week as the first member of the 2015 class. And if you add in current freshmen Kendrick Nunn and Malcolm Hill, Groce has collected five consensus top 75 recruits since taking the Illinois job a year-and-a-half ago.
To put that in perspective, his predecessor Bruce Weber landed 10 consensus top 75 players in his nine seasons at Illinois. So Groce has half of that number in less than two years. Yikes.
D.J. Williams will eventually join fellow Simeon High products Nunn and freshman Jaylon Tate on the Illini roster. At this point, Groce has formally established a pipeline with the four-time class 4A state champion, and the Illini may reap the rewards of this for years to come.
And he may not be done.
On top of all of this, he still has a shot to land prized recruit Cliff Alexander from Curie Metropolitan High School in Chicago. The long awaited decision from Alexander will come November 15, and he will decide between Illinois, Depaul, Kansas and Memphis. The 6'8" big man is a consensus top five recruit, and if he lands in Champaign, the Illini will likely vault to at least a top 10 team for the 2014-15 season.
Needless to say, Illini fans are eagerly anticipating his decision, and recent updates have given indications that Alexander may indeed be leaning toward the Illini. Below are a couple of recent tweets from Illinois basketball recruiting insider Taylor Rooks who has been closely following the Alexander recruitment.
Lots of speculation on twitter about Cliff Alexander's recruitment....mostly saying momentum has shifted from Kansas to the #illini— Taylor Rooks Sports (@ImTaylorRooks) November 7, 2013
I will say, in my opinion, #Illini is in a better position than some people think. Speaking with Cliff Alexander now.....— Taylor Rooks Sports (@ImTaylorRooks) November 7, 2013
Whether Alexander ultimately chooses the Illini or not, Groce is setting the foundation for future greatness at Illinois. Having already established a pipeline with Simeon High School, the hope is that it will branch out to other schools in the Chicago public league and the surrounding Chicagoland area.
The commitment of D.J. Williams may help with that as Williams has already said that he will be recruiting his close friend Charles Matthews of St. Rita High School in Chicago to come play with him at Illinois. Matthews, who is being recruited heavily by Groce, is the top rated player in Illinois for the class of 2015 and the 6'4" guard has already listed Illinois as one of his top 10 choices. Below are a few recent tweets from Matthews concerning the Illini.
Speaking with Charles Matthews right now and he says "I knew when I first met Groce that he would go turn that program around." @CMATTHEWS_1— Taylor Rooks Sports (@ImTaylorRooks) November 6, 2013
To put it simply, Groce is getting things done. He has a charisma about him that just draws players to want to play for him, and so far it's paying off. When asked about Groce and why he chose Illinois, Williams had the following to say:
The way he treats his players, the way they practice and play in games, the campus, everything down there is great, that’s what guys talk about. It’s like family. I got along with Coach Groce my first time meeting him. I just knew I could be there with the type of person he is outside of basketball and the type of person Coach Parham is outside of basketball. It’s like a family.
Williams also added, "I can now start recruiting for the other players to kind of join me. Illinois is rolling really good. With the players they have coming in and more from my year, I think we can make a big run in the NCAA tournament.”
Yes, what Groce has already done in terms of recruiting since coming to Illinois is scary. His current freshman class, which includes the aforementioned Nunn, Hill and Tate as well as Austin Colbert and Maverick Morgan, has been rated as high as 15th. Next year's class with Snider and Black as well as Michael Finke has already been rated in the top 15 and they don't even know about Alexander yet.
Now he's going to work on the 2015 class by starting off with D.J. Williams, and all indications are that he will be in the mix for Matthews as well as top 10 big men Diamond Stone and Elijah Thomas. And while I don't want to get ahead of myself, it's possible that the 2015 class could be even better than the previous two when it's all said and done.
It's certainly an exciting time to be an Illinois basketball fan, and amid all of the hoopla regarding future recruits, it's easy to forget that the 2013-14 season is underway. Groce has his hands full this season with seven fresh faces on the roster including five freshman, but they still have the talent to compete in the Big Ten and make another run at the NCAA tournament.
One thing is certain though, with the foundation that Groce has laid and with the talent that is on the way, the Illini look like they may once again be a player on the national stage for years to come.