By Dave Wischnowsky –
(CBS) They say where there’s smoke, there’s fire.
If that’s true, then right now John Groce is the Human Torch.
This past weekend, Leron Black, a 6-foot-7 Top 50 forward out of Memphis, pledged his allegiance to Groce’s Illini program during an official visit in Champaign, canceling trips to Indiana, Tennessee and Baylor.
Then on Wednesday night, Quentin Snider, a 6-foot Top 40 point guard out of Louisville, stunned hoops observers when he moved his official visit to Illinois from late September to this weekend – a highly encouraging sign for the Illini.
All the while, rumors – legitimate ones, according to my sources – continue to swirl about the possibility of Chicago Curie’s 6-8 superstar Cliff Alexander, ranked among the Top 5 players in the country, ultimately picking Illinois.
If Groce somehow manages to reel in Black, Snider and Alexander along with previous commit 6-8 forward Michael Finke of Champaign Centennial, well, that would certainly be a Fantastic Four.
It would be a neat trick too, considering how the Illini currently don’t have enough scholarships available to fit all those players in. I’m certain John Groce can count, however, so I’ll assume he working off a plan.
At the same time, I’m also becoming more and more convinced that Illinois can count on Groce to eventually lead Illini out of the hoops hinterlands and back into the upper echelon of college basketball.
On March 29, 2012, when Illinois announced Groce as its new basketball coach, his wife, Allison, showed up clad in an orange dress that she had coincidentally purchased six weeks before. When asked why she’d bought the outfit, Allison simply said, “I love orange.”
Following Groce’s impressive introductory presser in Champaign that day, I wrote, “There’s a great chance that Illini Nation will also come to love John Groce. He’s a good hire. With the right staff, he could be a very good one. In time, the man tied with Penn State’s Patrick Chambers as the youngest coach in the Big Ten (age: 40) could even become a great one. Who knows. We’ll just have to wait and see.”
Here in September 2013, I think what we’re seeing is that Groce indeed has that kind of potential at Illinois. The basketball world knows that the Illini haven’t been truly relevant on a national stage since 2006 when Dee Brown and James Augustine were seniors. In the years A.D. (After Dee), Illini fans watched the program slide into a morass of mediocrity that really began to change course only back in February when Illinois upset No. 1 Indiana in Champaign. That stunning victory re-energized the Illini, who went on to reach the second round of the NCAA Tournament — and caused their slumbering fan base to begin to stir.
Prior to his first season in Champaign, Groce had already stirred some hopes when he came close to nabbing high-profile prospects Demetrius Jackson and Xavier Rathan-Mayes, despite having only a few months of time to recruit them. Ultimately, Jackson chose Notre Dame and Rathan-Mayes picked Florida State (where he was recently declared ineligible for 2013-14 by the NCAA Clearinghouse due to a lacking high school transcript).
While he didn’t quite close the deal with those two players, coming so close in such a time crunch boded well for Groce’s future. That now appears to here as Groce has already picked up Black this fall with perhaps even bigger fish nipping at his line. Even if Snider opts to commit elsewhere and the rumors about Alexander’s elevated interest in Illinois turn out to be just that – rumors – Groce is looking like a guy who’s not content to just hold one of the Top 15 college basketball jobs in America.
He wants to make Illinois a Top 15 program again too.
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.