By Dave Wischnowsky –
(CBS) It’s a tough time to be an Illini fan.
The football program has lost 24 of its last 25 Big Ten games. The basketball program has missed four of the last seven NCAA Tournaments. And on Tuesday, Illini hoops coach John Groce ended up on the short end of yet another high-profile recruiting stick when 6-foot-9, 245-pound banger Elijah Thomas chose Texas A&M over Illinois, SMU, LSU and Oklahoma State.
While quite disappointing for Illini fans in dire need of a pick-me-up, five-star power forward Thomas’ decision was also quite understandable. Thomas’ close friend Admon Gilder just committed to the Aggies, and Champaign is located 400 miles further away from his hometown of Lancaster, Texas, than his next most distant finalist (LSU in Baton Rouge).
Despite naming Illinois as his leader last month following an official visit to campus, home ultimately was where Thomas’ heart was. And as a result, his failed pursuit was yet another case of the Illini hearing, “It’s not you, it’s me,” following in the recent footsteps of Villanova recruit Jalen Brunson (family ties to Philadelphia), Oklahoma State recruit Jawun Evans (proximity to his hometown Dallas), Louisville freshman Quentin Snider (cold feet prompted him to stay home) and Kansas freshman Cliff Alexander (the Jayhawks’ cachet provided the biggest ego boost).
With this ultimately unfruitful string of big-time recruitments, it’s not that Groce has done anything wrong, but rather it appears that for a variety of disparate reasons with each kid, nothing has turned out to be quite right.
I don’t know that anything could have been done differently to turn the Illini’s misses into hits, but after the November early signing period, I do think that Groce and his assistants would be wise to sit down and ask themselves that question.
Because while Illinois has received commitments from some really talented recruits in top-100 players Jalen Coleman-Lands, D.J. Williams and Aaron Jordan and put together what’s still a top-10 class nationally that fans should be excited about, the unfortunate reality is that program’s high-profile failures do seem to be overshadowing its successes.
As a result, it wouldn’t be a bad idea for Groce & Co. to re-examine their overall recruiting strategy, targeting and sales technique to see if anything can be refined, adjusted and improved.
Among many, the widely held belief is that to crack what’s become a frustrating nut, Groce simply needs to show some big wins on the court before he starts showing big wins on the recruiting trail. But while a run to the Sweet 16 next March would surely help Illinois, Texas A&M is an example of how a coach doesn’t need to win big before he can recruit big.
During his three seasons since arriving in College Station via Murray State, Texas A&M coach Billy Kennedy has gone only 49-47 overall (.510) and 19-35 in the Big 12 (.352) with no NCAA Tournament appearances. By comparison, Groce is 43-28 overall (.606) and 15-21 in the Big Ten (.417) with an NCAA tournament win during his two years in Champaign.
Yet, this offseason, it was Kennedy who managed to convince four of the top five recruits in the state of Texas – including three of the top 33 nationally – to join his struggling Aggies program. In the debate over the chicken or the egg, it’s clear that for Kennedy the egg has come first, and that’s left a little bit of yolk on Groce’s face with the recruitment of Elijah Thomas.
This isn’t at all to say that the Illini coach should stop chasing big-time recruits, both locally and from points all across the map. I very much like it that Groce has set his sights high for the Illini program, but with this string of high-profile recruiting shortfalls, it appears that those sights also do need to be set a little sharper.
How exactly? I’m not sure. But that is the coach’s job to ultimately figure it out.