By Dave Wischnowsky –
(CBS) Mike Krzyzewski, Rick Pitino and John Calipari.
Roy Williams, Tom Izzo, and, yes, Bill Self.
You know their schools, of course. But more than that, you know their names. The old saying goes that in college you play for the name on the front of the jersey, while in the pros you play for the name on the back.
I agree with that adage. But I also believe that in college basketball, star players commit to a coach even more than they commit to a school.
As a result, when it comes to recruiting, having an elite coach is even more significant than being an elite school. And from the looks of things, it appears that Illinois has a truly elite coach in John Groce.
And if he keeps recruiting the way he has so far this month, he could soon return Illinois to the pantheon of elite basketball schools.
On Thursday, point guard Quentin Snider of Louisville, ranked as high as No. 28 nationally, announced that he had picked Illinois (and Groce) over UCLA (and Steve Alford). Just a week before, Top 40 power forward Leron Black of Memphis chose Illinois (and Groce) over three other schools, including Indiana (and Tom Crean).
In college basketball, I consider the only full-fledged blueblood programs to be Duke, North Carolina, Kentucky, Kansas, UCLA and Indiana. And the fact that Groce – who has been at Illinois a scant 17 months – was able to edge out two of them as finalists for two elite players in the span of two weeks speaks volumes about the Illini coach.
What could end up saying even more would be a pledge from consensus Top 5 recruit Cliff Alexander of Chicago Curie, who tweeted late Thursday night after Snider’s commitment that he will be taking an official visit to red-hot Illinois for Homecoming on Oct. 26.
My friend Jeremy Werner of ESPN Radio in Champaign-Urbana posted on Facebook on Thursday evening, “Illini basketball fans should celebrate. You have a star coach.”
And they really do.
With that in mind, what really struck me about Snider’s press conference on Thursday was how he admitted that he’s never before watched the Illini play basketball on TV (he’s only seen them on YouTube) and that he incorrectly pronounced the state name with a hard “s” (Illinoise). I think it’s safe to say that Quentin isn’t exactly a die-hard Illinois fan.
But he is a die-hard fan of John Groce.
“What I like about Illinois is Coach Groce, he’s a real good guy. When I talk to him, he seems real trustworthy,” Snider told reporters after making his announcement. “… When I talk to the players about him, they say everything he says is true. He’s a good man, a good family man, and that’s why I’m going to go there.”
So powerful was Groce’s appeal to Snider that it even swayed the kid to shun the beauty of Westwood for the cornfields of Central Illinois.
“When I went to UCLA, it was a beautiful campus, real nice,” Snider said. “To be honest, right when I got off the UCLA visit, I wanted to commit. But I wanted to take another visit and Illinois, it just seemed perfect for me.”
That’s in very large part because of Groce, which bodes very well for Illinois basketball going forward. With Groce’s presence, Illinois could be moving onto a recruiting plane enjoyed by the likes of very select few schools led by pied piper coaches.
After all, think about, it did Jabari Parker really commit to Duke, or did he commit to Coach K? Is it Kentucky that truly appeals to the nation’s elite recruits, or is it John Calipari? And did Andrew Wiggins head to Lawrence because of Kansas, or because he was enchanted by Self?
In college basketball, coaches make the school, much more t
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.han schools make the coach. And whatever “it” is, the aforementioned coaches have it. They have championships too.
Judging by recent events, it appears that John Groce also has the former, and in time that could help finally lead Illinois to the latter, as well.