CHAMPAIGN – As Illinois cruised past Nebraska, 72-65, in its final home game of the season on March 2, the student section turned its attention away from the game and toward a young man seated at the opposite end of the floor.
“We want Cliff! We want Cliff!” members of the Orange Krush screamed.
The young man they were clamoring for is Cliff Alexander, the 6’9” junior from Curie High School in Chicago. The big man was in Champaign that Saturday to get a look at the school and the program run by John Groce up close. Ranked fifth in the class of 2014 by Rivals.com, Alexander has received offers from 10 schools already, of which Illinois seems to be firmly in the running.
For the orange-clad fans cheering for Alexander at Assembly Hall, having such a high-profile recruit courtside is still somewhat novel. In the last few years of Bruce Weber’s tenure at Illinois, the high-profile recruits to come to the school have either not panned out (Jereme Richmond, for example) or not been all that high profile.
Groce has changed that in short order, however, attracting highly-touted young men to his program and raising the level of excitement around Illinois basketball. Despite having limited time to recruit after coming to Illinois from Ohio University, Groce put together a fantastic recruiting class for 2013. Ranked ninth by Rivals.com, the group of five commits signed by Groce are the kind of high school players the school previously only came close to signing.
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Groce is known as a guard’s coach -- Ohio point guard D.J. Cooper told Illini guard D.J. Richardson he should be “the happiest guy in the world in [Groce’s] system” -- and that reputation helped him get exactly the guys he wanted for 2013. Shortly after joining Illinois, the coach let two commits, Jalen James and Michael Orris, out of their commitments so he could find the perfect guards for his system.
To find those players Groce looked north, to Chicago, where he successfully courted and signed Simeon guards Kendrick Nunn (ranked 45th by Rivals.com) and Jaylon Tate. For Nunn, the choice to come to Illinois was made easy by what Groce could offer, which he said was similar to Simeon.
“Groce motivates his players, he’s hard but he motivates them,” the recently crowned state champion said. “The deciding factor was how I fit in the program, how their style of play is and how comfortable I feel in the system...I’ll come in and play hard and work hard and hopefully I can make an impact.”
Groce didn’t stop with his Simeon duo, however, also signing Belleville East’s Malcolm Hill to provide him with more guard options. Outside of the guard position, Groce locked up four-star forward Austin Colbert from Gladstone, New Jersey and center Maverick Morgan from Springboro, Ohio.
The Illini’s great start to the season and wins over Gonzaga, Indiana and Ohio State helped in recruiting the class of 2013, but Groce has been even more ambitious with his 2014 plans. Getting to the NCAA tournament in his first year with the team is something the coach believes will be a boon to his recruiting.
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“From the standpoint of momentum and credibility, in terms of where we’re going and what we’re building and what these guys did when people didn’t think they could do it, making the tourney is a big deal,” the coach said.
For potential players, making the tourney could be a big factor in whether or not to come to Champaign. Alexander called the team’s season “shocking,” and said that both the success of the team and Groce’s ability to draw some Chicago players have made Illinois a legitimate candidate for his services.
“Coach Groce came and did his thing,” the soft-spoken big man said. “[Kendrick and Jaylon], they’re my homies. I love them.”
Besides Alexander, the Illini coach has already spent time and made offers to several five-star recruits including Jahlil Okafor of Whitney Young, the nation’s top recruit for 2014, Rashad Vaughn from Minneapolis, MN, and JaQuan Lyle of Evansville, IN. Illinois’ 2014 recruiting class is just one deep, with local product Michael Finke of Champaign Centennial committing early to Illinois, but there is already excitement for the next class based on the strength of the 2013 group.
That excitement extends beyond the fan base, too. Groce and his staff have hit the recruiting trail hard over the last few months, and though it’s early, they are encouraged by what they’ve heard from players.
“I feel great about next class. We’re working hard at it, our staff works really hard at it. Illinois is a great place, we have to make sure we get the right fit – guys who fit our system and build our and have the right pieces,” he said.
Who those right pieces turn out to be for the 2014 recruiting class, however, remains to be seen.
Alexander, for his part, remained coy about his future during his visit to Assembly Hall. When asked about his feelings for his home-state university he said, “I love Illinois, it means a lot to me,” but stopped short of giving any indication of where he might head to in the fall of 2014.
Alexander has offers from schools like Kentucky, Michigan State and Ohio State. But as he sat on the sideline munching nachos and listening to the Orange Krush chant his name, certainly he could wondered what it would be like to hear his name chanted from the court.
With Groce at the helm of the Illini basketball program, the idea of Alexander in an orange uniform isn’t so far-fetched. And that’s something the Orange Krush can cheer about, too.