By Dave Wischnowsky-
(CBS) From Kansas’ Naismith tradition to North Carolina’s Jordanesque pedigree to Duke’s Coach K-fueled dominance, every “basketball” school in the country has something special to sell.
But none of them offer the same opportunity that Illinois does.
Especially to in-state recruits.
“They put forward something that was pretty much legendary, I would say,” Melvin Nunn told Scout.com last week when discussing the presentation that first-year Illini coach John Groce & Co. staged for his son, Kendrick, during their visit to the Chicago Simeon standout’s home.
“It was straight-forward on him being that in-state guy coming to the state school and being not just a basketball player, but someone who leaves a legacy at his state school,” Melvin Nunn continued about the Illini pitch. “It was based on alumni, based on him winning state titles as a high school player, and then continuing that at his home-state school, and starting to get Illinois back rolling like they were in the early 2000s.”
Yes, the opportunity that Illinois has to sell is about all of those things. But it’s about even more than that, too. Because, the Fighting Illini truly do offer something that no other school in the country can. And that’s the chance to finally bring a national title to the best basketball program in the nation to never have won one.
Save me your Purdues, your St. John’s and your Temples, Illinois is hands-down the prettiest of the NCAA’s championship bridesmaids that find themselves perennially standing beside the altar looking up at the likes of Kentucky’s and UCLA’s beaming, ring-laden brides.
As a quick example: Illinois has 39 NCAA Tournament victories, which is good for 17th place on the all-time list. Every team ahead of the Illini has a national title. Meanwhile, Illinois’ 69 tournament games are tied for 15th all-time, and again everyone ahead has a championship banner.
For an additional bittersweet twist, with the 1989 Flyin’ Illini and the 2005 Illini of Dee Brown & Deron Williams, the University of Illinois also boasts arguably the two greatest teams to fall short of a NCAA crown.
Everyone in Illinois talks about the Cubs, but Illini hoops has its own epic drought enduring 140 miles south of Wrigley Field’s cursed ivy.
On Saturday, however, Groce secured the first big piece of his orange-and-blue basketball puzzle when Nunn, a 6-foot-1 shooting guard ranked among the nation’s Top 60 players, committed to the Illini during his official visit to Champaign.
With his pledge, Nunn became Groce’s first in-state high school recruit. If Nunn indeed can ultimately help lead Illinois to that elusive national title, he indeed will go down as a hoops immortal in a hoops-mad-but-championship-starved state.
The same “become a legend” billing could similarly apply to other Land of Lincoln studs that Groce might pursue down the line. And it’s that message which appeared to resonate clearly with Nunn during Groce’s pursuit, leading the high-schooler to even punctuate his commitment tweet with the hashtag #KendricksKingdom.
“We can continue to bring the history to our state school, coming from Chicago and the powerhouse of Simeon High School,” Melvin Nunn said about his son, who will wear the familiar No. 25 at Illinois – a tradition among Simeon alums such as Nick Anderson, Deon Thomas and Bryant Notree to honor the late Ben Wilson. “And we want to continue the history Illinois has always had with Simeon players.”
Kendrick’s commitment also prompted Melvin to declare that he believes Demetrius Jackson, a star point guard from Mishawaka (Ind.), will jump on board with Illinois soon. Xavier Rathan-Mayes, a highly ranked 6-foot-4 combo guard from Huntington (W.V.) Prep, also announced today that he will take an official visit to Champaign this coming weekend.
It appears that Groce’s sales pitch about becoming a championship legend at a school desperate for them is selling well even beyond the Illinois borders.
“He has that personality that’s so important in recruiting,” Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas told the Champaign News-Gazette recently when asked what he saw in Groce as a recruiter. “Recruiting a student-athlete is not that different than meeting the average person. It’s about building a relationship and trust level (with the prospect). John is a people person. He’s very good with people.”
He also seems to be pretty good with Illinois history.
And that could bode awfully well for Illinois’ future.
If nothing else, Dave Wischnowsky is an Illinois boy. Raised in Bourbonnais, educated at the University of Illinois and bred on sports in the Land of Lincoln, he now resides on Chicago’s North Side, just blocks from Wrigley Field. Formerly a reporter and blogger for the Chicago Tribune, Dave currently writes a syndicated column, The Wisch List, which you can check out via his blog at http://www.wischlist.com. Follow him on Twitter @wischlist and read more of his CBS Chicago blog entries here.