Big Ten coaches, players comment on recruiting Chicago

Big Ten coaches, players comment on recruiting Chicago
November 7, 2013, 11:30 am
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Vinnie Duber

It's no secret that Chicago is one of the country's top hotbeds for high school basketball talent.

So, with Big Ten basketball media day in the Chicago area last week, it gave coaches and players opportunity to comment on the pros and cons of recruiting the city and its large crop of talented players.

The man expected to haul in the majority of these top prospects is Illinois head coach John Groce. It's a tough task considering the Illini are often competing with the likes of Duke, Kansas, Kentucky and other historically dominant programs for these top players. But, with success in Groce's first year and his ability to bring in kids from the top high school programs — a pair of Simeon alums, Kendrick Nunn and Jaylon Tate, are Illinois freshmen this season — Groce was asked whether he's trying to "shut down" Chicago and keep those kids playing college ball in their home state.

"We've never used the phrase 'shut down Chicago,'" Groce said. "Chicago is a really, really important city for us, because it's in our state. We have a great state. California and New York, I believe, are the only two states that have turned out more professional basketball players than the state of Illinois. So we've always been very talent-rich. It's one of the things that makes Illinois a great job, that our state is so strong and we want to do a great job in our state. Chicago being very, very important, as well as the other cities and towns in our state. We take pride in the basketball in the state of Illinois. "

[MORE: Groce, Illinois recruiting hard in Chicagoland market]

When it comes to recruiting Chicago, though, an even tougher job belongs to first-year Northwestern head coach Chris Collins. Northwestern hasn't had the easiest time recruiting top talent that is watched on a national stage. Collins' arrival, however, has created a buzz around the Wildcats, and the coach talked about using that to his advantage as well as the benefits of being "Chicago's Big Ten team."

"I think one of the things that's exciting about our situation is the fact that we are right here in Chicago," Collins, a Chicago area native, explained. "I know I'm biased, being from this area, but I've always felt like the Chicago area and the state of Illinois is the best hotbed for basketball talent in the country. If you look at the numbers, the amount of Division I players that come out of our state every year — but not only in Illinois. I think all across the Midwest. And I think Northwestern, we're the kind of school, we have a unique niche. We offer the ability to be in the Big Ten, to play at the highest level of basketball, but also present a world-class education. And we're one of a few schools in the country that offer that, the best of both.

"And I think there's a good buzz about our program. But I know it's also about getting results on the court. It's not just about a buzz. And people are excited about us. It's been great going around town, people looking forward to seeing what we can become as a basketball program. But now it's up to us. We've got to go out there and we've gotta do it on the court."

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Some of the other coaches who reside farther away from Chicago than the in-staters commented on recruiting the city, too. Michigan State coach Tom Izzo, who recruits nationally thanks to his high amount of success in East Lansing, has been doing this for a long time, and he said that the nation's big cities go in cycles when it comes to churning out the best high school players.

"There's always dynamics in bigger cities, because there's more people involved in the recruitment and that goes anywhere," Izzo said. "That was in Detroit when it was really hopping. It's in New York and LA and the bigger cities. And yet, each city — it's cyclical. It moves around. Everybody has its hot few years. I don't know if it's different in any city. I think there's always the same issues. But if there's good players, there's going to be a lot of coaches around. If there's a lot of coaches around there's going to be issues. I don't know if it's any different than anywhere else. But I don't know what else I can say. I don't want to get slapped by somebody for saying the wrong thing as far as talking about recruiting. A lot of good players, a lot of coaches and good players. There's a lot of middlemen."

[MORE: Ohio State title dream still alive for Zion native Smith]

Then there's the player who actually played his high school basketball in the Chicago area. Ohio State's Lenzelle Smith Jr. went to Zion-Benton High School, and he went through the recruiting process, eventually joining up with coach Thad Matta and the Buckeyes.

Now, as a senior, he's looking at that process through the lens of trying to bring the top high school talent to Columbus.

"It's a battle. It's tough trying to get kids to commit to your school out of this area because you find that kids generally like to go to the more popular schools," Smith said. "The more success you have as a program, the more the likely you are to recruit these type of players. Chicago has done a great job of producing some of the best players in the country each year. Obviously, some of the best players in the country are going to go to the best programs. I think it has to be from the inside out. Even with us, coach Matta, we've done a pretty good job, winning the Big Ten consistently, making a run in the NCAA tournament, which puts us on a good pedestal to get recruits in."