Here are six key objectives for new Illinois coach John Groce, who sources say agreed to a deal on Wednesday:
1. Convince sophomore Meyers Leonard to stay: With Leonard, the Illini should be able compete at the top of the Big Ten. Without him, it’s unlikely. Leonard dominated at times as a sophomore, but he still had inconsistencies due to foul trouble and his own personal frustrations. He likely will be drafted in the top 15 if he leaves, but he could be an All-American and a top-10 pick if he stays.
2. Reach out to Parker: Simeon junior Jabari Parker is the No. 1 junior in the country and has been the priority for Illinois since he stepped foot on a high school court. Former Illinois coach Bruce Weber developed a good relationship with Parker and his family. It’s unlikely Illinois will land Parker, but Groce has to make a strong push. Groce recruited Greg Oden and Mike Conley Jr. to Ohio State, so he has experience with top-end players.
3. Retain assistant coach Jerrance Howard: He lives and breathes Illinois basketball. Howard grew up with it, played there and has now coached there. He has a strong relationship with the current players and the ones already committed. Howard has two years left on his contract. If he gets away, another high-major program will scoop him up, and he’ll soon be recruiting against Illinois.
4. Bring someone with Chicago ties onto the staff: Howard has opened many doors in Chicago, but Chicago coaches would be even more comfortable with one of their own. You’re never going to please everyone in Chicago, but a coach with Chicago roots would go a long way in most gyms. Simeon coach Robert Smith is the logical choice, but he’ll have to be persuaded to leave.
5. Drive to Chicago and start building relationships ASAP: It’s going to be an uphill climb for Groce in Chicago. Most Chicago coaches don’t know him, so they’re going to be skeptical until they speak with him. It will be a lot like what DePaul coach Oliver Purnell went through when he first was hired. Despite what critics have said, Chicago isn’t any more difficult to recruit than any other major city. You have to get in there and gain trust. Groce can do that, but it will take a little time.
6. Deal with Illinois’ current recruits: Groce and the Illini’s current commitments will have to decide what’s best for everyone’s futures. Crete-Monee point guard Michael Orris is the only player signed in the Class of 2012. Prospect senior combo guard Mike LaTulip was also recruited as a preferred walk-on. For the Class of 2013, Illinois has commitments from Belleville East shooting guard Malcolm Hill and LaLumiere point guard Jalen James. Both are highly touted and are considered to be Illinois’ backcourt of the future.