Groce Gets It Done

Groce Gets It Done

Illinois coach John Groce described his inaugural class as as "astonishing" effort.

A little over seven months ago, few would have predicted coach John Groce to compile the third-best recruiting class in the Big Ten.

The lifeblood of a college sports program, recruiting success hinges upon relationships, connections and trust developed. In theory, recruiting takes time.

Bucking that notion, Groce and Illinois received the letters of intent from five players Wednesday, a well thought of group ranked as the No. 20 class in the nation.

Surprised? You're not the only one.

"It is astonishing," Groce said, taking time away from his family and team in Hawaii to speak to reporters via teleconference.

The class:

Kendrick Nunn: Chicago, Ill. - Ranked the No. 10 shooting guard in the country. Can play both guard spots and known for his athleticism and tough mentality.

Malcolm Hill: Belleville, Ill. - A four-star guard/forward, Hill was the first to make a verbal commitment.

Maverick Morgan: Springboro, Ohio - A 6-10, 240-pound center, Groce recruited Morgan to Ohio before resuming the courtship at Illinois.

Jaylon Tate: Chicago, Ill. - High school teammate of Nunn, Tate received an offer from the Illini after the staff attended an open gym in Chicago in the fall.

Austin Colbert: Gladstone, N.J. - The last to join the class, the 6-8, 205-pound forward committed days prior to signing day.

There were some high profile misses – Demetrius Jackson and Xavier Rathan-Mayes would have been nice additions – but the fact that Groce was even in the ballpark with those kids should be taken as a sign of encouragement.

So, how did it all come together? First, Groce set out a plan. He wanted five players in the class from the beginning, one for each spot on the floor. And he didn't target players that could play at the up-tempo pace witnessed in the Illini's first two games this season.

He wanted players that could play even faster.

"I felt like one of our primary objectives with this '13 recruiting class was to try to get a guy at each position that fit that mold of what we're looking for in terms of our aggressive style at both ends of the floor," Groce said. "We say up and down. I told the guys you've got to get up and down on offense and up and down on defense if you're going to play the way that we're trying to play right now and even accelerating that moving forward."

One of the first calls Groce made after accepting the job was to Hill. The 6-foot-5, 165-pound versatile prospect originally committed to coach Bruce Weber.

Groce wanted to keep Hill in the fold and successfully went about it. Hill visited the campus and realized rather quickly he didn't want to test the water elsewhere.

"One of the things I really appreciated about Malcolm, and right from the outset, is he wanted to play for his state school. That meant something to him," Groce said.

Next came Morgan, who began to establish recruiting momentum in May and June, picking up offers from other major schools before deciding Illinois was the spot to be.

Hill and Morgan formed a nice start. From there, Groce needed to make a splash. Nunn was a top target all the way and the two knew each other dating back to Groce's time at Ohio. Playing for Chicago's Simeon Vocational School, Nunn represented a chance to open a gateway, to serve notice that Groce and Company could recruit the big city and get the best players.

"He brings you athleticism, he can shoot the ball, he's tough, he's a winner, he wants to play with really good players," Groce said of Nunn. "He used to doing that."

By the time Nunn pulled the trigger in September, it was obvious Groce was heading in the right direction.

Tate came on board soon thereafter and after much speculation over who the final piece would be, Colbert said yes earlier this week.

And that, in cliff notes, is how you recruit above expectations in seven short months.

"They'll always have a special place in my heart," Groce said of the members of his first class.

"… The first class is so critical and the biggest thing with this class in addition to addressing those five needs is the type of kids these guys are.

"They've got great character, they've got great families, they understand what it means to be a student-athlete and appreciate that. It's certainly a tremendous foundation for us."

Groce deflected credit toward his staff. He stressed the team effort, and the assistants on staff should get their due. But Groce is the leader. He sold his vision, and he did so without much time to work with. Counting transfers Rayvonte Rice and Sam McLaurin, Groce landed seven players in seven months.

That's recruiting. That's building. That's success. And that usually leads to the question that never rests.

What's next?

"Obviously you gain a little momentum each time a guy says yes or wants to be a Fighting Illini, and I think that kind of happened with that class," Groce said. "I think we're starting to see some carry over on that with the underclassmen."

And so the chase for 2014 officially begins.

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