By Matt Rodewald–
PEORIA, Ill. (CBS) — Illinois coach John Groce isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. That’s what he thinks.
Yes, four Illini basketball players have been arrested in the past seven or so months. How about two of them in a week, both for domestic battery? That’s all white noise to him.
Nope, instead of being low key in the days following the latest problem with his current roster, Groce was center stage in Peoria last weekend, sitting in the front row at Carver Arena looking at the possibilities for a future roster in Champaign.
Groce was more visible at this year’s IHSA state championships than ever before. On Friday, he and his young son enjoyed the afternoon session, then skipped around the March Madness Experience next door for a while.
Few fans even noticed, and if they did, they didn’t bother to stop and say hi. From our CSN Chicago TV set, I asked him in passing if he liked what he saw. He smiled.
“Oh, yeah, sure did,” Groce responded as he politely moved on.
There was Groce, taking a stroll in basketball convention hall. Michigan State’s stunning defeat was about finished on the TVs in the Peoria Civic Center, but he never looked up once to take notice.
Groce ignored the reality of not being in the NCAA Tournament, and fans returned the favor.
On Saturday, he took his scouting one step further, plowing through both sessions, all four games courtside. He was in the same seat, never moved.
Groce watched intently as Da’Monte Williams fought through injury to help Peoria Manual to a third-place finish. The son of Illinois legend Frank Williams, Da’Monte caused a stir in central Illinois when he committed to the Illini earlier this month. It helped raise his profile to all-state status, maybe a year too soon.
Others were to be had for Groce as well. St. Joe’s Nick Rakocevic, a 6-foot-11 big man, learned how to balance an inside game with his European flare from the outside. He’s the best uncommitted senior available, and he put on a solid performance for Groce.
Althoff junior swingman Jordan Goodwin was the only one all weekend who showed a true killer instinct. Many consider him a “tweener” at 6-foot-4, but a great showing in Peoria puts him in position to win Illinois’ Mr. Basketball award this year and next. He already has more than a dozen offers from Big 12 and Big Ten schools, including Illinois.
“Me and coach Groce are real cool,” Goodwin said.
Those would be good recruits, a solid wave to help boost the in-state profile for the Illini program. That’s not really why Groce was glued to the Carver Arena floor though. Between a few moments where his son asked for cotton candy or if he could play with his iPad, Groce had one player in mind — a high school freshman and the long-term future of his team.
St. Joseph guard Marquise Walker just finished his second season of varsity hoops. Yes, his second. He made waves after his family moved so that Marquise as an eighth-grader could play on a varsity team in Bowling Green, Kentucky. (Middle school students are allowed to play on varsity teams in Kentucky.)
Walker progressed with the Chargers this year under the direction of legendary coach Gene Pingatore, the basketball mind that taught superstar guards like Isiah Thomas, Evan Turner and countless others in his 47 years in Westchester.
Walker already has interest so far from DePaul and LSU but said Saturday that he didn’t have any offers just yet.
Groce might be ahead of the game here, but the recruiting game is about relationships, something he’s struggled with during his time in Champaign. Stevenson’s Jalen Brunson slipped away from Illinois because the relationship between he and Groce was “on again, off again.” Groce abruptly stopped recruiting Morgan Park star Charlie Moore in September to offer an out-of-state point guard, a move that didn’t go over well with Chicago high school coaches.
Yet, following four arrests in six months, and with new athletic director Josh Whitman in office — a man willing to flip the table upside down if he doesn’t like the arrangement, just ask Bill Cubit — Groce knows his relationship struggles have to stop here.
Oh, sure, Groce knows the importance of recruiting a standout like Walker. He must lay the groundwork, get in with the family and if this kid is that good, well, here they come.
Calipari, Izzo, Coach K and the big boys will swoop in for a likely All-American in Groce’s backyard. You can probably guess that Walker — among the best of the class of 2019 — will go elsewhere, out of the state, just like so many others.
Yet the hope of reeling in the big fish is still there for Groce. He still wants the big fix. It’s right there for him, but he knows it could slip away again.
As I sat on the other side of the court Saturday afternoon in Peoria, my eyes were glued to him. At one point, he turned to his young son, pointing at Walker on the floor after one spin move as if to say, “Did you see that?”
The eyes widened and the imagination wandered. This is Groce’s last stand.
While the other uncommitted stars put on a solid show on the big stage and would be welcomed in Champaign, Groce is thinking bigger. Can you blame him?
The game never stops and in his mind, Groce isn’t going anywhere, not anytime soon.
Matt Rodewald is an update anchor and weekend host at 670 The Score. Follow him @Matt_Rodewald.