It’s one of those well-worn, origin-story yarns that John Groce has spun probably dozens of times. But it’s applicable to how he's building the Illinois basketball program, so we can allow it: His father, Larry, often asked him one simple question when Groce was a hyper-competitive kid.
Did you make any mistakes today?
Sometimes his son’s answer was no. Which represented one mistake that day.
Well, shoot, Larry Groce would reply, then you didn’t get any better.
No template is more apt for how Groce and his staff aim to tap into the program’s abundant un-mined potential and create a consistent national contender. The Illini have reached just one Final Four in the last quarter century, but few programs live on promise like they do. Talent abounds within state lines, radiating from the epicenter of Chicago to the suburbs and well beyond, with 17 top-100 prospects in the past three Rivals.com recruiting classes. Illinois has made recruiting runs at some of the most high-profile players available, casting aggressively for the rarest of catches, only to find some equally high-profile (and at times bitter) disappointment at the end of the line.
Groce and his coaches have pressed on anyway, elbowing their way into the mix for more coveted prospects in-state and elsewhere. The stubbornness is startling. After getting bruised in such battles, some staffs might recalculate the cost-benefit of pursuing the uber-elite. Illinois sees the cost in not doing that. This means proceeding without fear of a day with a mistake.
“It’s the old deal, you miss 100 percent of the shots you don’t take,” Groce says during a break from the September recruiting grind. “For us, we’re just wired that way. You might be disappointed [at recruiting losses] because you put a lot into it. That’s pretty natural for any person that does that, when they put their mind, heart and soul into something. But we don’t spend any time like getting discouraged by that. In fact, it usually motivates us even more and we figure out what we can learn from it. We keep swinging here. That’s just kind of who we are. We swing.”
Three days before saying that, Illinois had connected. Jalen Coleman, a 6-foot-3 guard and a consensus top-50 recruit in the Class of 2015 from La Lumiere School in La Porte, Ind., issued a verbal commitment to play for the Illini. Coleman is the highest-ranked prospect to pledge his services to Groce since the coach’s arrival in 2012. And while the program missed on Jawun Evans, a top-30 point guard from Texas who chose Oklahoma State, it is still in the running for another top-30 Lone Star State native, 6-9 center Elijah Thomas.
The ones who got away inarguably cast a shadow. In the past three recruiting classes, three top 10 players -- Jabari Parker (who chose Duke), Jahlil Okafor (Duke) and Cliff Alexander (Kansas) -- escaped Chicago, as did a top 20 guard from the suburbs, Jalen Brunson (Villanova). Yet here is Groce, in the process of assembling what could be a top-10 class. Strangely, Illinois might derive some benefit from being involved with multiple top-level prospects even if those prospects go elsewhere. Winning some of those battles would help speed a return to the Final Four, but maybe the Illini can win for losing, too. “It shows we’re aggressive and kids certainly respect our program and how we recruit them and what we’re building,” Groce says. “I don’t think that’s necessarily a negative thing.”
Coleman’s case is slightly different, in that the foundation was poured years ago. He says he has been recruited by Groce since he was in eighth grade, when the coach was still at Ohio. About a month after Grove got the job in Champaign, Coleman got a scholarship offer. “That showed me that they put their trust in me, and they believed that I was going to get better,” Coleman says. But he didn’t commit on the spot. Coleman wanted to analyze all his options. He watched Illinois develop a guard-friendly offense heavy on setting screens, spacing, constant movement and pushing the ball. While Coleman deems recruiting rankings “meaningless,” he saw enough talent flowing in to do good things in his first year on campus.
He committed mostly due to that larger picture. But the efforts to procure top-end talent – even if that talent heads elsewhere -- did not go unnoticed. “I want to have the best roster possible so we can win the most games and get a championship,” Coleman says. “That’s what it’s all about.”
It’s important to note that Groce has landed or is expected to land three recruits from the Chicago area across three recruiting classes, as part of a group of six Illinois natives to sign or commit to his program. Four of the six were or are four-star prospects, per Rivals.com.
Clearly, the land within state lines is hardly salted earth for Groce, though it’s the decisions of upper-echelon prospects that tend to tilt the narrative in that direction. Part of that is justifiable: It’s a lot easier to make an NCAA tournament run this year with, say, Jahlil Okafor or Cliff Alexander stationed in the paint. But there is some hyperventilation, too. Alexander picked up an Illinois hat during his commitment news conference only to drop it and don a Kansas cap instead, immature and unnecessary theater that probably overheated the talk about what the decision said about the Illini.
The staff absorbed a sharp, well-publicized uppercut that day. It didn’t go to its corner. “Kids are kids,” Groce says now. “I wish nothing but the best for that young man. I enjoyed getting to know him and recruiting him. I try not to get caught up too much in what I can control versus what I can’t control. There are some things you can’t control. You’d drive yourself nuts ... For us, more important than what happened that day or how it was done by Cliff was our response moving forward. Which was to continue to swing. That’s part of it. You gotta get up, move forward and move on.”
Groce talks about movement a lot, hammering at a sales pitch featuring the renovations to State Farm Center, the team's home arena, as well as a Nike rebrand and fuzzy stuff that he refers to as “some other things we’re working on that will come to public fruition here sooner than later.” He considers it part of the solution to making Illinois, with every-other-year NCAA tournament bids since 2007, better more consistently. “There’s a momentum, an excitement, the ball is rolling downhill and picking up steam,” Groce says. “Because of that, kids are intrigued. It gives you a platform to recruit the best players in the country.”
Before departing for Kansas, former Illini coach Bill Self built up the talent base with players like Deron Williams and Dee Brown, precipitating that 2005 run to the national title game under Bruce Weber. That’s the level of achievement the school's fans have been left to covet since.
That success may come if Illinois lands top recruiting targets like Self did, but a boost from the on-court product wouldn’t hurt. A year ago, Groce had nine newcomers on his roster – “Which I hope never to do that again,” he says – and the Illini were arguably a rimmed-out Tracy Abrams floater in the Big Ten tournament away from earning an invite to the field of 68. Groce believes his first two squads – a 23-win team that made the third round of the NCAA tournament, and last year’s 20-15 club that went to the NIT – maximized what they could be. Doing so this year would mean another NCAA tournament push. That isn’t all the program aspires for, but it would be a sign that the losses, recruiting and otherwise, haven’t been fatal. Whether those mistakes are part of something bigger depends on how much Illinois connects from here on out.
“I think the place has limitless potential,” Groce says, which means no end to the swinging anytime soon.