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KBD to tOSU. Ouch. November 18, 2012

A friend sent me a text when offensive lineman Ethan Pocic committed to LSU. “Pocic to LSU. His (freaking) brother plays here! When are we going to start keeping these kids at home?”

Um, never? Until Illinois Football has 6-8 years of fighting-for-division-title success, top-50 football players such as Ethan Pocic will never, ever stay home.  Would you?  Saturday nights on national TV or Saturday mornings at 11:00 on BTN overflow?  Until you build it, they won’t come.

But I feel completely different re: basketball.  And, specifically, I feel 1000% different about downstate basketball players.  If there’s a non-Chicago top-50 basketball player, he MUST play at Illinois (in my mind).  Illinois Football will forever watch those kids head other places.  Illinois Basketball must keep them home.

We didn’t.

Keita Bates-Diop from Normal University High, #20 on Rivals’ 2014 rankings, #27 on Scout, #27 on ESPN, picked Ohio State today.  That. Hurts.  I can stomach Chicago kids going elsewhere – everybody recruits Chicago.  But a downstate top-30 kid?  We HAVE to find a way to secure that verbal.

Am I being too dramatic?  Probably – always am.  But look at it this way.  Take the 2001 team.  Now, take Frank Williams (downstate, ranked in the 20′s nationally) off that team.  Still feel good about us reaching the Elite Eight?  Or how about 2003.  What if Brian Cook (ranked around 20, from Lincoln) had picked Ohio State? Take away his 20.0 ppg, and that team is probably too young to contend.  Even last year’s team was led by a downstate top-20 kid in Meyers Leonard.  And now he’s in the NBA.

My point: I don’t expect four and five star kids to join Illini football – we’re just not competitive.  But I do expect them to choose Illinois in basketball.  Some of the Chicago kids, but all of the downstate kids.  We have to get them.  And we didn’t today.

And if any fans know about missing out on in-state talent, it’s Illini basketball fans the last seven years.  Sherron Collins?  Helped Kansas to a national title.  Jon Scheyer?  Helped Duke to a national title.  Evan Turner, he of “Illinois is my leader”? National Player of the Year at Ohio State.  We corrected that later in the Weber years, keeping DJ and Brandon and Meyers and Jereme home, but with players like Sam Thompson heading to Ohio State and now KBD, the players that made us so great 10 years ago are moving to Ohio.

Do I expect to get an Anthony Davis or a Jabari Parker?  Not really.  Players from Illinois that climb to #1 nationally don’t ever pick Illinois (I think Marcus Liberty was the only one in history).  But I expect to compete for the Evan Turners and the Sam Thompsons and the Keita Bates-Diops.  And they all picked Ohio State.

Which, I guess, leads me to another “can you blame them?” situation.  Thad Matta has built a monster at Ohio State.  For the majority of my 25-30 years of obsessive Illini watching, Illinois was a superior basketball program to Ohio State.  But in the last 6-7 years, they’ve jumped over us and accelerated so far ahead that they can’t even see us in their rear-view.  So to a high school junior right now, they really don’t remember a time when Illinois was a dominant basketball program.  Let’s do some quick math… Keita Bates-Diop was likely born in 1996, which means he would have been eight or nine when we were in the Final Four in 2005.  A 16 year-old who has only lived in Illinois for six years doesn’t see us like we see us.  Illinois Basketball isn’t Illinois Basketball to him.

So yes, this one hurts. We only have one scholarship to give in 2014, and in my mind, it was KBD’s and KBD’s alone.  He would have been the perfect fit for the roster John Groce has recruited – an athletic wing who would fit perfectly with the 2013 class.  With him, our 2014/15 season looked really promising.  Without him, well, it’s going to depend on who we get.  Groce has recruited a solid supporting cast.  Now he needs to find a star.  And I think KBD was that star.  That’s pretty depressing.


It’s certainly not the end of the world.  John Groce has all of next summer to take this one scholarship and find a star.  In getting Austin Colbert from New Jersey and getting close with Demetrius Jackson, Xavier Rathan-Mayes, and Tyler Ennis, Groce has shown a willingness go of out-of-state to find the roster he needs.  It’s a long way until signing day, and this staff will have options.

And as I’ve said in this space before, November 2014 is when we’ll know what we need to know about the trajectory of this program under John Groce.  We’ll have six scholarships available on signing day, a solid in-state crop of players, and two full seasons for John Groce to sell his system.  Around the time of the Big Ten/ACC challenge in early December 2014 (Maryland vs. NC State in the B1G/ACC challenge!), we’ll be able to see which way the program is pointing.  That class and 2+ years of results will tell us everything.

After this recent signing class (and three wins to start the season, including an “are we allowed to do that?” double digit comeback), things are certainly pointing up for John Groce.  Kids like Kendrick Nunn and Malcolm Hill will be a big part of the rebuilding of this program.  And it’s very possible that Groce will land a different top-30 kid in the 2014 class, and KBD’s decision to play for Ohio State really means nothing.  And with this article talking about Groce building a relationship with Simeon High School, there’s a chance our 2015 recruiting class could be really special.  If Simeon’s coach saying this doesn’t get you excited…

“When I took over as coach, I had listened to (former coach Bob Hambric),” Smith said. “He said, ‘If you think about sending a kid somewhere, you should think about Illinois, so we could be able to win a national championship, and our kids can be at home winning. At the end of the day, when they’re done playing basketball, they could be at home and possibly get a good job from the alumni.

“It’s great for me. I wouldn’t rather see it any other way. I’d rather have our better kids staying at home like other state schools and give ourselves a chance to win a national championship.”

…I’m not sure what will.

But this loss still stings.  I just feel like we should own downstate, and we didn’t.  And after getting close with Tyler Ennis, Demetrius Jackson, and Xavier Rathan-Mayes but eventually losing, and after missing on a top-30 kid only 50 miles away, we’re still missing that big-time verbal – the Dee Brown, the Sergio/Marcus – that announces our ascent back to the top.

You know, until 2015, when Charles Matthews becomes the top Illini recruit since Deon.

PittsburghNellie November 18th, 2012

If nobody else is, I guess I’ll hold out hope that we have a really good year and he decommits from OSU and commits to us.

Joe John November 18th, 2012

Groce needs to win some games in 2012-2013 and 2013-14 to be competitive on the 2015 guys that wont decide until signing day. I believe the KBD to Ohio State should make certain that it was Matta that deserves credit for the guys going to Ohio State, not John Groce’s “recruiter of the year” award while there.

Lets see what he can do with this current group of players….bc quite honestly this year and next the team needs to make the NCAA tourney. If it doesnt, not sure how he sells “we’ve missed the tourney 5 of 7 years” to the 2015 guys, no matter what Robert Smith says (who I really believe is angling for an asst coaching job at Illinois once Jabari is done). Maybe he can take Parham’s job? I kid I kid…i’d actually want Deon to take it.

Lou-a-villini November 19th, 2012

Thad Matta is a downstate Illinois guy, which probably counts for something in this particular story. And, remember Robert, you said “there’s always another scholarship available” so Groce might have two players to add to the roster. Fingers crossed…..

illinidmd November 19th, 2012

OUCH, indeed.

Groce understands this game. 5 guys this year is a better plan than “saving spots” for upcoming years… ask the guy in Manhattan Kansas how that works out!

illiniranger November 19th, 2012

KBD is a big loss but this speaks a lot to continuity and why kids pick the school to attend. it’s a lot more about the relationship they have with the coaches and the current status of the program at this very moment in time.
tOSU has been much better than Illinois since Matta arrived. hence, tOSU is a much better program to all the kids that are in high school now.
the only way you solve the problem is to win. its not going to happen over night.
another thing hanging over all this is that the B1G keeps growing. the more teams you add, the harder it becomes to crawl out of the cellar and win a conference championship. honestly, does anyone think we will ever win a football conference championship in a 14 team league? are our odds that much better in basketball?
college sports, especially bball, is beginning to look like professional sports playoffs. make the playoffs, hope you get hot at the right time, ride the wave to a championship.

illiniranger November 19th, 2012

also, kudos to tOSU for their commitment to athletic excellence. they have hit absolute home runs in the bball and football hires. B1G football is about to be Urban Meyer’s world – and we’re all just living in it.

Lou-a-villini November 19th, 2012

In 2017 (or whenever), I can’t wait for the basketball talking heads to utter these words: “It looks like the Big Ten is positioned to go eleven deep in the tournament.” WTF

Hucklebuck November 19th, 2012

Frankly, the way the one we have is playing one Pocic is plenty.