It may not look like it from the current Big Ten standings, but John Groce and the Illini are not far off from setting themselves up for major success down the road.
With the addition of 2014 four-star PF Leron Black—and 2015 commitments from Aaron Jordan and D.J. Williams—Orange and Blue fans have a new breed of talent to look forward to in the near future. Furthermore, transfers Aaron Cosby and Darius Paul will be along for the ride, while point guard Ahmad Starks will add instant talent to a position that needs it.
But after the 2014-15 season, Starks and Tracy Abrams will be gone—leaving only Jaylon Tate on the depth chart at point guard. Abrams has been a decent player during his time in an Illini jersey, but there has been a definite stunt in his growth this season. As a result, the entire offense has struggled to operate with any kind of consistency.
The Illini hit their lowest of lows on Saturday night, scoring a measly 39 points in yet another defeat. Abrams actually rebounded from his previous struggles to total a team-high 13 points, which was as many as he had scored in the previously three games combined. But there were two problems: He scored one-third of his team’s points, and he had three turnovers and no assists. Out of 345 Division I teams, Illinois currently ranks 318 in the country in assists (10 per game). Some have brushed off the statistic, as Groce runs an isolation-heavy offense. Nevertheless, that doesn’t mean guys aren’t supposed to drive the lane and find open teammates, and set guys up to score (Ohio ranked in the top 150 in assists in Groce’s final season). That ultimately is the job of the point guard.
Groce has taken heat for the way his offense has been run this season, but the fact is, he’s a long way off from having D.J. Cooper—who he coached at Ohio. Cooper finished his collegiate career as the only player in NCAA Division I history to total at least 2,000 points, 900 assists, 600 rebounds and 300 steals in his career. He was also a finalist for the Lou Henson Award in 2013, which is given to the top mid-major player in the country. Cooper made Groce’s offense go from the time he stepped on the floor—and he is looking for that same type of player in the 2015-16 classes right now.
Groce’s leading candidate is Adlai Stevenson point guard Jalen Brunson, who he has been to watch two weeks in a row. Brunson totaled 20 points (9-9) with seven assists last Friday with Groce in the stands. The rollercoaster relationship between Illinois and Brunson has been well documented. Rick Brunson says that Jalen has forgiven Groce, but it remains to be seen if the Quentin Snider situation will burn the Illini in the end. The Illini do have some things riding in their favor in this recruitment—believe it or not. For starters, there may not be a coach who will recruit Brunson harder the rest of the way than Groce.
In addition, of the current players for Brunson, few programs will be able to offer him the same kind of “Day One” opportunity to come in and be the guy right away. Michigan State and Tom Izzo want Brunson badly, but they just signed four-star point guard Lourawls Nairn in the 2014 class. They are also pursuing 2015 combo guard Eric Davis—who is listed as a point guard but has the height (6’3) and skill set to play shooting guard. In terms of Michigan, John Belein would love to have Brunson, but his freshman point guard Derrick Walton Jr. is likely to still be the starter come 2015. Jerrance Howard is buddies with the Brunson family, but Kansas has been off and on in the recruitment of Jalen. The Jayhawks are also hotly pursuing two other point guards in the 2015 class in Jalen Adams and King McClure.
Villanova is another program to watch with Brunson, as Jay Wright as really been pushing hard for him recently. The Wildcats have Ryan Arcidiacono at point guard, but Brunson would likely jump him on the depth chart if he chose Villanova. Arcidiacono is currently a sophomore and a former four-star, who has started since he arrived on campus.
Brunson is certainly a game-changing prospect, with his ability to do it all on the offensive end. He penetrates, he is a deadly shooter, and he has a killer crossover, high basketball IQ and more. He simply makes his teammates better, and that’s the beauty of college basketball recruiting. One or two players can change the entire landscape of a program—while in football, you have to be able to win numerous position battles.
Brunson will be the main target going forward, but in case it doesn’t work out, the Illini are also looking at other options. One of those includes combo guard and Indianapolis native Jalen Coleman. Groce went to watch Coleman on Jan. 1, and the Illini have continued to keep tabs on him. Coleman is an athletic scorer, whose game mirrors Jamal Crawford. He would be a great asset to Illinois, although Groce would probably prefer a true point guard (i.e. Brunson). Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Michigan State and Notre Dame appear to be the major contenders. Purdue and Ohio State are in it as well.
The Illini have also extended an offer to Dallas, Texas point guard Jawun Evans, who is one of the top 20 point guards in the 2015 class (per the 247 Composite rankings). Illinois got some good news on Monday night when SMU got a commitment from a 2015 four-star point guard. The Mustangs were a major player for Evans, in addition to Oklahoma State. The Illini went down to see Evans on Feb. 11. He has great athleticism and ball-handling skills, and he is an impressive distributor.
The Illini are also in the mix with some other 2015 point guards, but there are heavy favorites in their respective Crystal Balls: Hyron Edwards (Purdue), Jimmy Whitt (Arkansas) and Davis (Michigan State). If all else fails, Bogan High School (Chicago) point guard Luwane Pipkins is not a bad option. The 5’10, 155-pound prospect has had a big season this year in the Chicago Public League. Groce might want to consider offering him a scholarship in the near future though, in case other options don’t work out.
The Illini have made headway into the 2016 class as well, targeting stud Canadian point guard Jamal Murray. The 6’5 phenom has everything you want in a point guard. He was the 2013 MVP of the Jordan Brand International Game in New York last May. Murray plays AAU for the CIA Bounce, which is run by Tony McIntrye (father of Syracuse point guard Tyler Ennis). McIntrye has a great impression of the Illinois staff, as Groce and Dustin Ford have been recruiting his program for years.
“I love their staff. Their staff is great. John Groce obviously goes back all the way to when he was at Ohio,” McIntyre said. “He’s recruited our program since then, with him and Dustin (Ford). So they’ve been recruiting our program for probably five or six years, which is probably one of the longest outside of probably New Mexico State and Iowa State.”
The Illini are one of the teams recruiting Murray the hardest—according to McIntrye—along with Syracuse, Louisville and Michigan. Murray said he is looking for a situation where he can come in and play right away, and the Illini might be able to provide that for him. He is definitely a guy to keep an eye on, as the hype will only get bigger for him.
Groce said in his teleconference on Monday that the point guard position is just like the quarterback in football. When you don’t have a consistent quarterback, it’s hard to have a consistent team—just ask many of the Illini/Bears fans out there. Groce added that Abrams has been a good leader, but he has failed to be consistent over the course of this season.
"The consistency of our play there has been up and down, to be honest, and the players know that," he said.
The Illini are in the middle of quite a tough stretch, as some are starting to question the direction of the program. But Groce made it a point of emphasis last week to note that they are right on track.
“Obviously, we like where we’re going. We like who we’ve got coming in. We’re going to continue to work with the guys we currently have and try to get them better,” he said. “We’ve got a great place here at Illinois. We’ve got a great tradition with our basketball program. We’ve got an arena being renovated. We’ve got a lot of great things as our foundation—at our core—to continue to build on, which is exciting. We just got to continue to stay the course and continue to move forward.”
“We just need to improve the current guys on our team, and continue to add talented people and players to our roster. I knew that on March 29, 2012 and I know it (now). That hasn’t changed.”
The Illini may be on the right track, but the point guard position will be the part of the train that determines how fast Groce will get the program to where he wants to go. The 2013-14 season is lost, aside from improving the younger guys and continuing to evaluate the roster. Getting out of last place would also probably help. But Groce and his staff are getting ready to enter the biggest summer of their tenure.
Groce is confident in all those things that he has to sell—in addition to instant playing time for premier point guards. That position can make a world of difference for a team. Frank Williams, Deron Williams and Dee Brown were huge reasons why the Illini won four Big Ten titles in five years from 2000-05. Groce has seen the same thing with Cooper at Ohio, as he steered the ship to the Sweet Sixteen in 2011-12.
Finding a guy like that to put into an Illini uniform is now the No. 1 point of emphasis.