With Tuesday morning's surprise commitment of Simeon junior small forward D.J. Williams, Illinois and head coach John Groce continued to make their recruiting presence felt in the Chicagoland area.
After an initial 2013 recruiting haul that featured the state championship Simeon backcourt of Jaylon Tate and Kendrick Nunn, Groce has continued to hit the four-time defending state champions hard with the commitment of Williams.
The 6-foot-7 Williams committing to Illinois was not the surprise -- Williams had been considered an Illinois lean -- but the timing of his decision opened some eyes. A consensus top-three player in the state of Illinois' 2015 class, and a top-50 recruit nationally, Williams is the first Simeon player to commit before his senior season in the Wolverines' long and storied history. It also signifies that Groce and his staff of assistant coaches Dustin Ford, Jamall Walker and Paris Parham have quickly forged relationships with key in-state players that were underclassmen when Groce first became the Illini's coach in late March of 2012.
The timing of Williams' commitment is unique, but it definitely won't be the last major commitment Groce lands from the Chicagoland area. Players want to play for the energetic Groce and prospects and their coaches recognize Groce's NCAA Tournament success at Ohio and his immediate success with Illinois last season. The Illini are in tight with numerous prospects in Chicagoland and it starts with Curie senior power forward Cliff Alexander.
The 6-foot-8 Alexander is a bruiser on the interior and his combination of raw power, athleticism and a developing skill-set has made him a consensus top-5 prospect in the 2014 national class as he chooses on November 15th between Illinois, DePaul, Kansas and Memphis.
The Illini have a legitimate shot with Alexander and received an official visit from him on October 25th when Williams and a few other underclassmen also visited. Rumors circulated early this week that Alexander's final two might consist of local schools DePaul and Illinois but Kansas has long been a player in Alexander's recruitment and the Jayhawks have had him to campus multiple times. In fact, Alexander's girlfriend plays for the Kansas women's program.
As of a Tuesday report from Fox Sports' Taylor Rooks, Alexander will visit Kansas for a third time this weekend and also receive an in-home visit from Kansas coach Bill Self as well before his decision. Self, the former Illinois coach, is known for his ability to close and he famously bagged Homewood-Flossmoor's Julian Wright during an in-home visit in 2004 after it was perceived locally that DePaul and Illinois would also be the final two involved.
Many more twists likely remain in the Alexander recruiting saga -- he adores Twitter attention from fans of the schools recruiting him -- but he would be a tremendous addition to an already strong Illinois 2014 recruiting class that also includes Louisville-native and point guard Quintin Snider, forward Leron Black out of Memphis and Champaign native and sweet-shooting forward Michael Finke.
With Williams already in the fold for 2015, Illinois has a chance to form a scary-good class around him. On the wing, D.J. is a good fit because his athleticism and upside and the Illini will look to compliment him with a guard and a big man to fill out the 2015 class. The Chicagoland area is filled with high-major guards in 2015 and St. Rita's Charles Matthews, Stevenson's Jalen Brunson, Plainfield East's Aaron Jordan and St. Joseph's Glynn Watson have all been recruited to varying degrees by Illinois. Matthews, Brunson and Jordan all hold offers from Illinois while Watson has visited campus and is the younger brother of former Illinois all-Big Ten point guard Demetri McCamey.
The Illini will likely opt for an out-of-state big man since the 2015 class doesn't offer many local options, as Ohio's Carlton Bragg and Texas' Elijah Thomas have emerged as priorities, but St. Rita's Myles Carter will also be tracked by Illinois' staff as well this season.
In the 2016 class, Illinois had the state's top prospect, Zach Norvell, on campus along with Alexander and Williams in October and the Simeon guard has a tight relationship with assistant coach Paris Parham. One of the area's top freshman, Evanston guard Nojel Eastern, also visited Champaign in August and took in Illinois' football game at Soldier Field this fall. While the 2016 and 2017 classes still have a ways to go, Groce and his staff are off to a good start by getting both of those young and talented lefty guards on campus as they begin to build relationships with Norvell and Eastern.
When you combine Groce's enthusiasm with his NCAA Tournament success and hard-working staff, Illinois is in great shape recruiting the Chicagoland area and they should be involved with a number of prospects from the area going forward.