The state of Illinois is said to be a haven for top high school basketball prospects. That is more true some years than others, but Illinois head coach John Groce faces constant pressure to recruit the best players in the state yearly. Fortunately, he had a head start before being hired, so there haven't been many surprises.
"Yeah, for the most part. We had some experience recruiting the state before we came to Illinois. Whether it was when I was at Butler or Xavier or Ohio State, or when I was head coach at Ohio, we recruited Illinois. Now Illinois is more important."
The Fighting Illini have enjoyed tremendous success over the years in basketball. Groce is aware that most former players hail from the home state.
"Illinois is important to us. You look at the track record of success at Illinois, and the majority of those guys honored at the 100 year Centennial ceremony for Illinois basketball were from the state. That's the challenge, to do a good job recruiting the state."
However, like new head football coach Tim Beckman, Groce sees his "home" territory as larger than state boundaries.
"You do a lot of research on recruiting. Coach Beckman and his staff have done this, and you see that most of the championship teams in football have most of their kids who came from a 6-hour radius from the campus. So I think distance from home is really important."
Groce would love to build a fence around the state to keep the best players at the state school. But he wants players who fit his system as well. That may require extending his recruiting net wider than state boundaries.
"Protecting your state is important, but I think finding the right guys is more important. We want to find Illini guys.
"Obviously, that starts with our state, not only Chicago but the entire state. There's 13 million people in the state of Illinois, and we are going to have an opportunity as the state school, as we move this thing forward, to have a chance to get kids to campus.
"We talk about getting to campus easier and having their circle of influence be a part of their experience. That's that distance-from-home factor."
Throughout the history of Illini basketball, some high school coaches in the state have complained when the Illini didn't recruit their players or emphasize in-state recruiting enough to their liking. And yet, not all high school coaches encourage their players to be receptive to Illini overtures. Groce reminds it goes both ways.
"I've issued the same challenge right back to the coaches. I've encouraged those guys, if the fit is right, to encourage their kids to play with the state school. It's two-way street. So far we've been received well. We've just got to roll up our sleeves and grind it out."
Groce wants to create the best teams possible. To do that, he may need to supplement state prospects with top players in nearby states. That is especially true when the state lacks what he needs at certain positions.
"It certainly doesn't mean that our roster will be explicitly from Illinois. The biggest thing is the fit piece, people that fit our University, people that fit our basketball program and our culture, and people that fit our style of play. All of those things go into that equation."
The Illini head man speaks frequently about "fit," with good reason.
"I think the fit is huge, it's a really critical piece. If a kid's from the state of Illinois, and he's not a good fit, and it's not a good environment for him, it's not a good marriage so to speak. It's not gonna work out.
"So I think the key is doing a great job recruiting in our state, at the same time making sure that the fit is right for the institution, for the basketball program and for our style of play."
If a player has a poor experience during his time at Illinois, it could have negative repercussions down the road.
"You never want to bring a young man here, regardless of where he's from, and have it not be a good fit and not a good experience. Then it's not a good situation for the school or for the young man. We certainly don't want that to be the case."
It is said winners are unafraid of losing. It appears Groce insists on certain standards of excellence in his recruits and will not settle for mediocrity. That way, he doesn't have to adapt his style of play to counter player weaknesses.
"Anything you do in life, I think it's important that you have the courage to stand up to what your convictions are."
If courage is his most important trait, truthful communication comes in a close second.
"I think the other thing is communicating honestly with coaches in developing a trust. We may not agree all the time, and that's okay. My wife and I don't agree all the time. But the main thing is the communicating, having a relationship, getting to the point where you are communicating with them in an honest manner so they can trust what you're saying."
Of course, that applies to the prospects as well. Groce and his staff will tell their top prospects exactly why they are good fits for the Illini program. He will also explain to players and coaches why some prospects do not fit his system and will not be recruited.
Groce has specific criteria he seeks for each member of a 13-man roster.
"No question. As we move forward in recruiting, we have a definition of what we are looking for at point guard, what we're looking for at combo guard, what we are looking for at what we call our 'big three,' what we're looking for at skilled forward, athletic forwards, true post players and centers.
"We have that very specifically defined, and our guys know what we're looking for. And our staff knows as we head out for recruiting what guys fit the best."
However, he is reluctant to address those specifics publicly.
"The fans can probably figure it out. I've addressed the point guard position because people have asked me specifically about that. But I don't necessarily want to go into detail about a specific position and what we're looking for. We have a great understanding of that inside our village, our staff and our team.
Groce discusses specifics of point guard play and defining roles on the team in part five of his nine-part interview.