By Dave Wischnowsky –
(CBS) It’s estimated that approximately 2.5 million brides walk down the aisle in America each year. The University of Illinois is never one of them, but it sure can rock that bridesmaid dress.
On Wednesday afternoon, senior point guard Jalen Brunson of Lincolnshire Stevenson became the latest five-star prospect to give his home-state school the cold shoulder, following in the recent footsteps of fellow Land of Lincoln phenoms Cliff Alexander, Jahlil Okafor, Jabari Parker, Anthony Davis and Derrick Rose.
And this time, the out-of-state school wearing the gown and tossing rice was Villanova after Brunson made the announcement that he’ll be wedding himself to coach Jay Wright’s program in Philadelphia next year.
Just like last Novemeber when Chicago Curie’s Alexander notoriously snubbed Illinois in favor of Kansas during a televised press conference just hours after point guard Quentin Snider surprised everyone by flipping his commitment to Louisville, Illini coach John Groce’s program was again left as the runner-up with Brunson.
But unlike those twin debacles last November, all is not lost for the Illini recruiting hopes this time around. Not long after Brunson’s announcement, Groce and assistants Dustin Ford and Jamall Walker reportedly were in Cleveland on Wednesday night to watch five-star power forward Carlton Bragg. Today, Groce is expected to jet down to Dallas to push for a commitment from five-star point guard Jawun Evans, who took an official visit to Illinois last weekend.
Yet another five-star power forward, Elijah Thomas of Lancaster, Texas – a close friend of Evans’ – already has an official visit lined up for Champaign, as does four-star combo guard Shake Milton out of Owasso, Okla.
As I wrote about Groce last month, he’s managed to lure enough big fish within reach of his recruiting net that it’s difficult to imagine he won’t reel in at least one or two. But until Groce actually does, the nervous chatter and hand-wringing will continue to grow among edgy Illini nation.
After Brunson made his choice Wednesday, one Illini fan friend texted his worries that Groce’s recruiting misses will turn him into “Bruce Weber 2.0.” Another pal texted a short time later to ask why I thought all these big-time recruits aren’t coming to Illinois.
I told them it’s because they wanted to go elsewhere.
In all seriousness, I don’t believe there’s one singular reason why Groce is yet to sign a superstar. Each player that he’s fallen short with has had different reasons for making his decision.
Alexander was charmed by Bill Self and Kansas basketball’s pedigree. Snider got cold feet and opted to stay home. Brunson, the son of two former Temple University athletes, grew up with a strong Philly influence. And in 2012, before Groce had even coached an Illini game, star point guard Demetrius Jackson of Mishawaka, Ind., ultimately went with the coach who had recruited him longest in Notre Dame’s Mike Brey instead of the one who came in late but almost stole him away.
Groce’s misses thus far have gotten more attention than his hits, which have included the likes of sophomore Kendrick Nunn of Chicago Simeon and freshman Leron Black out of Memphis. There’s still no reason for Illini fans to hit the panic button, and following Brunson’s announcement we thankfully haven’t seen the widespread anger and angst that roared across the state after Alexander’s rejection.
That may partly be because Illini fans have become numb to the snubs and have come to expect the worst with recruiting, but it’s also in large part because many know there still are other standouts still out there. And at some point, one of them (at least) is going to step up to the altar and finally say, “I-L-L … I do.”
My gut says it happens soon.
After all, the Illini simply can’t fit into that bridesmaid dress forever.