Groce hire paying dividends for Illini

There’s a measure of toughness being exhibited by John Groce and the staff that he’s assembled at Illinois. When you take over a major program in the spring, it’s not an easy task piecing a class together for the following year. Recruiting happens so early that getting involved with the next senior class is a chore on that timetable.

Here’s where Illinois deserves kudos. Groce didn’t waste time in areas he had no chance. However, he and his staff did pick out a few targets they thought could help shape the program, were reasonable in terms of “getability” and fit Groce’s style of play. The first two national recruits they made inroads with turned out to be Demetrius Jackson (Mishawaka, Ind./Marian Catholic) and Xavier Rathan-Mayes (Canada/Huntington Prep). Rathan-Mayes was probably a shade aggressive given his father’s relationship with Florida State and FSU’s history of churning out scorers.

Jackson on the other hand, well, he made Notre Dame sweat it out. Groce embedded himself and his staff in that situation. A day before Jackson decided he was still in the wind and blowing in two directions. Finishing second stinks, Groce knows that but the situation he inherited and the timing of the deal meant he was going to need to grab a Chicago guy or two and pick a handful of national battles to fight.

It’s not like the Illini were on Austin Colbert (Gladstone, N.J./Gill St. Bernard’s) since last April. From what we understand, an Illini staffer saw Colbert in mid-July, immediately called Groce and all of the sudden the Illini had themselves a new post target. In case you’re wondering, seeing a guy in mid-July and trying to jump in when he’s got established high-majors on him isn’t easy.

Illinois hit Colbert with this pitch. Because of his unique skill set as a face-up 4-man, the Illini would go on to sell Colbert on the fit of the program and his skill set. He could play at their pace and space the floor as needed. The Illini hung around him the entire month of July and even though few believed they could rock the boat with him, Groce and staff persisted. Illinois did everything it could to recruit Colbert and they were looking at having to knock heads for a Jersey kid with at least Miami, Seton Hall and Villanova, if not more programs.

Here’s where it got real interesting. Colbert was on the verge of announcing last week on his birthday. Those around the situation were doubling down on Villanova. We’ve seen this before. A kid leaks out he’s about to announce and a school becomes the favorite behind the scenes. Most of the time the rumors morph into facts. In Colbert’s case, they didn’t.

Illinois’ resiliency and tenacity paid off. Colbert went on SNY.tv and popped for the Illini. We’ve had Colbert in the 100, moved him out and kept him close the last two years. He’s a good player, has some upside and is a great kid and student. Most schools want guys like this in their program. Illinois needed him.

The point on this commitment deals with the big picture. Demetrius Jackson dealt Groce a blow. The Illini took that one hard. We’ve seen it before, a program misses on a guy and everything goes south, including the momentum it built from previous pledges. That’s not the case here. Illinois dug in and prepared for a fight for Colbert and won. He now joins a growing class that includes ESPN 100 guard Kendrick Nunn (Chicago, Ill./Simeon), ESPN 100 wing Malcolm Hill (Belleville, Ill./East), guard Jaylon Tate (Chicago, Ill./Simeon) and center Maverick Morgan (Springboro, Ohio/Springboro).

If you’ve ever been around Groce, you know he’s not the type that smells the roses. The guy’s always on the go, never stopping to catch his breath and he probably won’t change. If he had stopped for a moment last week, Austin Colbert would be a Wildcat not an Illini.