Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Nunn Commitment Only the Beginning for Groce

When John Groce took over as head basketball coach for Illinois, it was after an arduous search that left many in Illini nation disappointed in the final choice. I disagreed and outlined why I thought he was an outstanding choice, given his abilities as a recruiter, his modern offensive philosophy that takes advantage of the players actually on the team, and his up tempo coaching style. But most importantly, I felt, was his energy, enthusiasm, and ability to forge relationships with everyone he comes across. I thought that these skills would be invaluable to everything the program did in his tenure, from actually getting into the Chicago recruiting scene, to schmoozing alumni, to hiring the best assistant coaches, to rehabbing the tarnished Illinois basketball brand. Groce seemingly got off to such a great start, garnering rave reviews from Champaign about from nearly anyone who came into contact with him. But it wasn't until the commitment of Kendrick Nunn, the senior shooting guard from Simeon Career Academy, that Groce had the entire fan base behind him.

The commitment of Nunn cannot be understated. First and foremost, the kid can play. He's a highly athletic shooting guard who can penetrate to the basket, but can also sit back and rely on his nice jump shot. He's a smart player who knows how to not only win, but be a part of winning teams. And he has the natural skills to be a leader, with that combination of vocal, cocky, and confident. But just as importantly is both where Nunn is coming from, and why he is choosing Illinois.

Groce recruiting Nunn at the football game this weekend
Much is made of the need for Illinois to get players from the Chicago basketball scene, and the supposed ability of Illinois to do so has made it a popular school to be given the "sleeping giant" label. For some reason, though, top talent from Chicago has not headed to Illinois for some time, certainly not in the Bruce Weber era. With the commitment of Nunn, Groce's first big recruit, not only have the Illini struck straight through the heart of the Chicago scene, but they did it at arguably the best high school team in the state and one of the best in the nation. Simeon is the definition of Chicago basketball talent, with their numerous consecutive state basketball titles and their prestigious alumni, among them Derrick Rose. Simeon used to send some of their best and brightest to Illinois, including Deon Thomas and Nick Anderson. With Weber, though, Illinois struggled to even gain a foothold in Chicago, let alone Simeon. But Groce, in landing his first major recruit, has struck gold in opening the long-dormant pipeline into Chicago and Simeon.

Landing Nunn is also huge for Illinois for the reasons he chose the school. When Kendrick visited the school this past weekend, his father and him were given a presentation on all the great Simeon players to come to Illinois in the past and the legacy they left behind. Groce pitched to Nunn that he could be the next Simeon player to come to Illinois, but this time leave with the legacy that he was the recruit that jumpstarted another era of Illinois excellence. Quite simply put, were Nunn to choose Illinois over his other suitors, like Ohio State, Marquette, and UCLA, he would be taking the opportunity to cement Illinois as the destination for Chicago high school players, and the opportunity to reinvigorate a program and fanbase that has long needed something to be excited about.

In the end, that was what got Nunn on board. Kendrick loved the idea of spearheading a new era of Illinois basketball. His great relationship with Groce didn't hurt, as Nunn's family reiterated throughout the process that they would not be even considering Illinois if it wasn't for John Groce. And that is why this is only the beginning for Groce.

Nunn could be a catalyst
Groce has Illinois as the leader for two other elite 2013 recruits, Demetrius Jackson and Xavier Rathan-Mayes. Nunn's father even let it slip that it was expected by the staff to at least land Jackson. To adequately understand what this means for this program, understand that none of these players, not Nunn, Jackson, nor Rathan-Mayes, would even be considering Illinois if the program was still led by Weber. There wouldn't have even been a conversation from these players regarding the school. Yet, with Groce at the helm, we've already landed Nunn and look close to securing the commitments of two other elite players. The scary thing is, Groce got into the 2013 recruiting cycle as the Illinois coach years after other competing coaches. The true ability of Groce to recruit won't even be felt until 2014 at the earliest, and really, the 2015 class. Yet, here we are, with players coming to Illinois that we wouldn't have even dreamed of 6 months ago.

To be sure, we haven't seen his coaching style yet and just how well it will mesh with the Bruce Weber recruits on the team right now. But all of the players have loved Groce throughout the offseason, with many of the players who were in Weber's doghouse merely for missing shots actually looking forward to an offense where the only time you will be in the doghouse for shooting is when you stop hoisting shots. His uptempo offense, enthusiastic, and energetic qualities, along with his genuineness, make Groce the perfect appeal to prospective recruits. And when you consider the potential that the Illinois basketball program has on every level, the hiring of Groce looks better everyday. Illinois may be a sleeping giant, with it's perennial success, major recruiting region, large alumni and fan base, and major conference, but in recent years, it's been more sleepy and less giant-like. Yet, with the hire of John Groce, and all of his subsequent developments, the rest of the Big Ten may soon be echoing Admiral Yamamoto's fears that Groce has awakened that sleeping giant.