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September 1, 2013

Illini basketball is in good hands




CHAMPAIGN - A reporter easily noticed Leron Black when the 6-foot-7 five-star forward walked through the Memorial Stadium press box with his parents on Saturday.

But the reporter barely noticed the man who has orchestrated Illinois basketball's revival.

John Groce didn't look the part of ace recruiter. He had no slick suit. He doesn't have movie-star hair (or much hair at all). Instead, the Illini head coach was wearing an adjustable orange Illini baseball cap, a white golf shirt and funky plaid shorts.

But as he trailed Black to one of the 800-level suites, Groce oozed confidence - saying, 'Hey, how you doin'?' to passers-by - like a man who knew he was getting his target but was enjoying the chase anyway.

And like so many previous visits during the last year - Aaron Cosby, Kendrick Nunn and Darius Paul all committed during visits to Illinois - Groce landed his target. Black, a Memphis native ranked the No. 22 prospect in the country according to Rivals.com, committed to the Illinois staff on Sunday.

Groce might not look the part, and Groce might not have been athletic director Mike Thomas' first choice - who can blame him for pursuing VCU's Shaka Smart and Butler's Brad Stevens, who is now with the Boston Celtics? - but he is quickly proving to be one of the Big Ten's most dangerous recruiters.

Words really cannot put into context what Groce has accomplished in his 18 months at Illinois. A program full of self-doubt - the Illini lost 12 of 14 in 2011-12 and missed the NCAA Tournament for the third time in six years - suddenly has swagger again ("Want Leron Black, Indiana? You got to beat us for him!").

A program that couldn't find enough contributors suddenly has a bevy of depth. The addition of Black could give the Illini its deepest roster since its national title appearance in 2005. Check out the possible depth chart for 2014-15.

Center - Nnanna Egwu, senior; Maverick Morgan, sophomore

Power forward - Austin Colbert, sophomore, Darius Paul, sophomore; Michael Finke, freshman

Small forward - Malcolm Hill, sophomore; Leron Black, freshman

Shooting guard - Rayvonte Rice, senior; Kendrick Nunn, sophomore

Point guard - Tracy Abrams, senior; Aaron Cosby, junior; Jaylon Tate, sophomore

If one player struggles or disappoints, there are other options. The roster has a balance of size (five players taller than 6-foot-8 and seven players taller than 6-foot-6), athleticism (Black and Nunn have both competed in dunk contests), and skill (Cosby was a 40 percent three-point shooter at Seton Hall and Hill made 30,000 shots this summer).

The roster also features a class balance rarely seen during the past six years: three seniors (possibly four), one junior (two if you count walk-on Mike LaTulip), six sophomores and possibly three freshmen.

If Ahmad Starks is denied a hardship waiver by the NCAA, he would add even more depth to the guard position in 2014-15. If he receives the hardship waiver, his scholarship could go to a 2014 recruit. Four-star point guard Quentin Snider will receive a visit to his Louisville home from Groce and his staff next week and is scheduled to visit Champaign on September 28. No. 2 overall prospect Cliff Alexander still is considering Illinois as well.

With nine newcomers and just three returning players with Big Ten experience, the Illini's goal for the 2013-14 season is to simply make the NCAA Tournament and continue the momentum accrued during the past year. Expectations will be and should be much higher for 2014-15, a year Illinois will make its move up the Big Ten ladder.

Black - and the pursuit of Snider - also is further proof that Groce won't rely on in-state and Chicago recruits to build up his program. The state and city are two unbelievable resources for the Illini and the Illini staff has worked tirelessly to build relationships throughout the Land of Lincoln, landing Nunn, Tate and Starks from the Chicago Public League; Paul from the suburbs; Finke and Rice from Champaign; and Hill from the St. Louis metro area (Belleville). But they've diversified their assets, landing Morgan (Ohio), Colbert (New Jersey), Jon Ekey (Missouri), Cosby (Kentucky) and now Black (Tennessee).

Roster-building was Bruce Weber's weakness. It's clearly Groce's strength.

Oh, and he's not a bad coach either, leading the Illini to and NCAA Tournament win after starting the Big Ten season 2-7.

Opinions differ on Black. Rivals rates him the 22nd best prospect. Scout ranks him 46th. ESPN ranks him 36th. Some say he won't be a threat offensively. Others say his outside shot is vastly improving. Some think he'll be a McDonald's All-American. Others say he won't be a superstar.

What we know is that he's an elite athlete, a top rebounder and a max-effort player - all qualities that will boost the Illini roster in 2014-15 and beyond.

What we know is that he boosts the emerging storyline that Illinois basketball is back, and that the man orchestrating it all - the one who was wearing the kind of dorky baseball cap and the funky plaid shorts on Saturday - is set on quickly making his mark as one of the best recruiters in one of college basketball's best conferences.

Yes, Illini fans, get excited. Illinois basketball is in good hands.


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Jeremy Werner is the co-host and Illinois reporter for the "Tay and J Show," which airs weekdays 3-6 p.m. on ESPN Radio 93.5, 95.3 in Champaign-Urbana and streams online at www.espncu.com. You can contact him at jeremy@espncu.com or follow him on Twitter @WernerESPNCU


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