Recruits impressed by Illini's early success

Illinois' John Groce is capturing the attention of recruits with the Illini's success. AP Photo/Jeff Roberson

Being Illinois' head coach got John Groce in most doors when he was first hired and began recruiting the Chicago area.

Groce's sales pitch then was a mixture of the past along with predicting the future. He spoke of what he had done at Ohio and what he thought he could with Illinois. Some recruits knew of Ohio because of Chicago product D.J. Cooper and its NCAA tournament appearances, but not everyone was familiar with the Bobcats.

Now that Groce has 13 games, which has included 12 wins and a top-15 national ranking, under his belt at Illinois, recruiting has become easier for him. He now has an actual product to show recruits, and recruits so far have said they like what they've seen.

“I think anytime you win and you're building something like we are and having some success, what it basically does is it gives you credibility,” Groce said. “It becomes faith with evidence. ... I do think from the perspective of future classes, kids see us play, see us compete, see the energy level we have -- I think our guys have played well together -- I certainly think it gives you more credibility. It certainly doesn't hurt.”

Some of Chicago's top recruits, which also makes them some of the nation's top recruits, have taken notice of the Illini's early success.

St. Rita sophomore guard Charles Matthews, who is ranked No. 11 in the Class of 2015 by ESPN, recently said he's seen the Illinois play a few times this season and has been attracted to Groce's up-tempo offense. Matthews has offers from Arizona, DePaul, Illinois, Providence and SMU.

“I really like what they're doing,” said Matthews, who doesn't plan to commit until his senior season. “I like the spacing and the freedom to make plays. I've put more interest in them. I didn't think (Illinois' success) was going to come this fast. I'm really impressed. They've been doing so well.”

Simeon sophomore forward D.J. Williams, who is ranked No. 23 in the Class of 2015, also spoke highly of Illinois. Williams' parents recently attended an Illini game in Champaign. He has offers from DePaul, Florida, Illinois, Nebraska and SMU.

“I like their style of play and coaching staff,” said Williams, who plans to make an unofficial visit when Illinois hosts Indiana on Feb. 7. “They get to play a lot. They get up and down the floor.”

Groce is not the only one recruiting Williams for Illinois. Simeon seniors Jaylon Tate and Kendrick Nunn signed with Illinois in November.

“Players recruit players,” said Simeon coach Robert Smith, who thought Illinois was also benefiting from assistant coach Paris Parham's Chicago ties. “D.J. has a great relationship with Jaylon and Kendrick. ... I know it helps that Jahlil (Okafor) said he's watching Illinois. Kids follow what he's doing.”

Okafor, a junior center for Whitney Young, is ranked No. 2 in the Class of 2013 and recently said he was wide open in his recruiting and was still considering the Illini.

That's also the case for Curie center Cliff Alexander, the city's other elite junior prospect. Alexander is ranked No. 8 in the Class of 2014.

Curie coach Mike Oliver said Friday he thought Illinois had a true shot at landing Alexander.

“He talks about them a whole lot,” Oliver said. “Cliff is kind of a homegrown kid. He likes being around familiar people. It helps Illinois that he wants to stay at home, and they're success is also helping them.

“He fits their style of play. He's a big, but he's a mobile big. He likes to play up and down. Cliff is very athletic. They like their 4 and 5's to freelance, not stand in the post block to block.”

What also could be a selling point to Alexander is being one of the biggest recruits in the program's history.

“His thing is playing in front of him mom, being close to home and being the face of the program,” Oliver said. “He could be the face of the program at Illinois or DePaul. He could be Illinois' first All-American since Jereme Richmond. You can start your own legacy. You can be the guy from Illinois.”