Illini benefiting from Simeon relationship

CHICAGO -- If a college basketball coach is going to have one close relationship with any high school in Chicago, Simeon would be the desirable place.

The Wolverines have owned Illinois high school basketball for nearly a decade. Simeon has won five state championships and has had one runner-up finish in the past seven years. It has produced two players ranked in the nation's top 5 during that span and will have delivered at least 16 players since 2006 to Division I programs after the upcoming season.

And that trend doesn't appear to be ending anytime soon with young phenoms filing through Simeon's doors on a yearly basis. The Wolverines' future already looks to be 6-foot-7 sophomore D.J. Williams, 6-5 sophomore Edward Morrow and 6-6 freshman Ben Coupet.

Because all of those reasons, Illinois coach John Groce has to be feeling good. One of his first objectives when he was hired in March was to develop a relationship with Simeon and its coach Robert Smith, and that mission was accomplished.

On Wednesday, Groce was rewarded with Simeon point guard Jaylon Tate and shooting guard Kendrick Nunn signing their letters of intent with Illinois.

Smith doesn't believe it will end there either. Just as Simeon has previously sent Nick Anderson, Calvin Brock, Bryant Notree, Stan Simpson, Ervin Small, Deon Thomas, and Kevin Turner to the Illini over the year, Smith said even more Wolverines could end up in Champaign.

"That's a great list," Smith said. "We can add on, I think. ... I think their chances got a lot better (with Nunn and Tate.) I don't know what this means, but I know Kendrick and Jaylon hang with D.J. (Williams) more than ever. I think it would be easy for them to help his transition to over down there. We'll see what happens, but I think that's a possibility."

Tate is confident he and Nunn are just the beginning of Simeon's funnel to Illinois.

"Illinois has had a great pipeline of players getting from Simeon and other great players throughout Chicago," Tate said. "We just want to start that back and get a lot of players. We have a lot of players here like D.J. Williams, Ben Coupet, Ed Morrow. We have a lot of top players in younger classes as well looking at Illinois. We just want to start that back up again."

Nunn said, "I want to bring back something that hasn't been happening since (Illinois recruit McDonald's All-American Jereme) Richmond. Simeon's players, Chicago's players haven't been staying home to play college basketball."

One of the primary reasons Smith has been such an Illinois supporter over the years and was especially willing to give Groce a chance was because of former Simeon coach Bob Hambric, who passed away in 2009.

"When I took over as coach, I had listened to him," 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."

What has also worked for Groce was hiring Paris Parham as an assistant. Parham, a Chicago native, has known Smith and a number of area players and their families for years.

"It's been huge," Smith said of Parham's hiring. "That's the key to everything. Paris has known the kids. He had relationships with those guys. He's from Chicago as well. He wants to see them do well."

Groce has appreciated his relationship with Smith, too.

"I've enjoyed getting to know him," Groce said. "He's bright. He does a great job with his kids. I think he really cares about his kids, and we feel fortunate we're going to have the chance to coach a couple kids from his program."

Smith is optimistic his kids can lead the Illini to a national title. He's confident Nunn and Tate are vital pieces in the Illini reaching that pinnacle. While the two guards bring skill to Illinois' table, Smith said their winning nature was just as important.

It's that Simeon mentality Tate spoke of when asked where he and Nunn could take the program to over the next four years.

"We're going to bring our style of play," Tate said. "We're going to play hard. Our main goal is to win. Nobody is on their own mission. Everybody is here to win. That's going to take us as far as we can."