College Basketball Nation: Malcolm Hill

I had doubts when Illinois picked John Groce to lead its program in 2012 after Bruce Weber was dismissed.

My doubts were really tied to Illinois, not Groce. He clearly had credentials. He’d led Ohio to that season’s Sweet 16, where the Bobcats lost an overtime war to North Carolina. Prior to his tenure in the MAC, he’d spent time under Thad Matta at Ohio State.

Yet, he’d entered a challenging situation. Weber reached the 2005 national title game with Dee Brown and Deron Williams but he never found that perch again. Years of disappointment followed that achievement.

The recruiting battles he lost -- many involving kids in nearby Chicago -- were critical in the team’s gradual decline.

So once Groce took the job, he immediately faced one major question: Can he bring elite talent to Champaign?

That’s the only question any coach has to answer. But Illinois’ leaders have faced even more scrutiny due to their proximity to a recruiting hub named Chicago (although it’s really not that close to Chicago).

Well, Groce’s latest coup proves that Illinois’ spot on the recruiting map has been elevated -- locally and nationally -- since he arrived.

Quentin Snider, ranked 28th in the 2014 class per RecruitingNation, chose Illinois last week, even though some thought he’d pick UCLA (see my colleague Eamonn Brennan’s post on the SoCal recruiting war). But Groce made a fourth-quarter pitch to the point guard that obviously worked.

More on the Snider move from ESPN.com’s Adam Finkelstein:

But Illinois made a late push to get Snider on campus last weekend, allowing it to make a final impression. The Illini followed that up by traveling to Louisville the next day to conduct an in-home visit to help Groce seal the deal.

Snider was a late addition to this year's point guard market after having previously been committed to Louisville for almost two years.

He decommitted on July 31 due to concerns about the number of other talented guards on the Cardinals' roster. In Illinois and UCLA, Snider narrowed his choices to two programs who could provide him what Louisville could not -- an opportunity to run the show from the start.

The commitment is a potentially huge addition for Illinois because it was able to land one of the last remaining point guards capable of making an immediate impact. After Groce's 2013 recruiting class was headlined by a pair of ESPN 100 swingmen in Kendrick Nunn and Malcolm Hill, along with an athletic and skilled big man in Austin Colbert, his top priorities in 2014 were to get a post player and a point guard.


Groce’s 2014 class is now ranked fourth overall by RecruitingNation. With Nunn and Hill -- a pair of Illinois kids -- anchoring his 2013 class, UI finished 15th nationally.

Next year could be a tough one for an Illinois team that will rely on multiple transfers and young faces after losing Brandon Paul and D.J. Richardson. Then again, Nunn and Co. could make an immediate impact and push the Illini into another NCAA tournament slot.

But regardless of what happens this season, the talent pipeline is rich. Groce has already proven many doubters wrong. Last season, he led the team to an upset of No. 1 Indiana and an NCAA tournament victory in his first year on the sideline.

If the program’s prospects fulfill their potential and stick around for more than a year, Groce could turn Illinois into a Big Ten player and national title contender again.

That might not seem clear in 2013-14.

But Groce is definitely loading up in Champaign.

Illinois is rising. Quickly.
1. St. John's coach Steve Lavin is looking forward to the instructive piece of the Red Storm trip to Italy (Aug. 19-Sept 1). He is viewing this trip as a summer report card on the Red Storm. Orlando Sanchez, Max Hooper and God'sgift Achiuwa need competitive games in Europe, according to Lavin, to shake off some of the "rust as a result of sitting out this past season.'' Lavin said highly-touted freshman point guard Rysheed Jordan will get his "baptism as a college athlete in Europe while playing in competitive games and gaining a better sense for his new teammates." Lavin added this trip comes at the ideal time to get new assistant Jimmy Whitesell acclimated with the St. John's team. The Red Storm are in that middle group in the new Big East with Xavier, Butler, Villanova and Providence, with any one of them capable of jumping up and challenging frontrunners Marquette, Creighton and Georgetown.

2. Vanderbilt is practicing in advance of the Commodores foreign trip to Greece and Italy Aug. 10-20 and with a number of defections (Sheldon Jeter, A.J. Astroth, Kevin Bright) and a year-long suspension (Kedren Johnson), this trip is critical for Vandy to find out who it will be this season. Vandy coach Kevin Stallings said the trip will be beneficial to Tulsa transfer guard Eric McClellan and forwards Damian Jones and Josh Henderson probably the most. The reason is the responsibilities have shifted. All three will be counted on heavily. But Stallings may be most anticipating to see what Jones, an incoming freshman, can do, adding he "is going to be very good.'' This is a rebuilding season for the Commodores and any added advantage helps.

3. Illinois is still waiting to find out if Oregon State transfer Ahmad Starks can get an immediate waiver to play immediately this season rather than sitting out. Starks returned home with the intent on being closer to an ill relative in Chicago. But the University of Illinois is 135 miles from Chicago (depending on what part of Chicago). The waiver is meant to be granted to a within 100 miles of his home. Illinois coach John Groce took Starks knowing he may have to sit to play one. Illinois has Tracy Abrams, Joseph Bertrand, Drake transfer Rayvonte Rice and recruited Kendrick Nunn, Malcolm Hill and Jaylon Tate. So, it's not like the Illini don't have anyone to play the position. But Starks would bring immediate experience and depth. It could also mean someone redshirts. Having Starks to balance out classes wouldn't be the worst thing, either.

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