Groce Makes a Texas-Sized Impression

Illini Coach John Groce travelled to the Lone Star State Monday to visit Elijah Thomas. Find out why Illinois stands out among the 24 schools the 2015 five-star center is interested in.

Everything is bigger in Texas. Just ask John Groce.

The Illini Head Coach took a flight Monday to Lancaster, Texas – where one of the biggest things in the Lone Star State plays basketball.

Elijah Thomas is a 6-foot-9, 242-pound junior center at Lancaster High.

The fact that Groce personally travelled down South to meet with the 2015 five-star recruit made Thomas feel like a top priority.

"He's not like the head coach that just lets his assistants do the recruiting," Thomas said. "He recruits his self. He doesn't recruit a lot of players, so to be recruited by Coach Groce means a lot."

Thomas is right. Groce recently landed commitments from Louisville point guard Quentin Snider and Memphis forward Leron Black.

"I'm cool with Leron, I'm really close to Quentin. So for me to play along side them, it would be just like a whole group of friends being friends on the court and off the court," Thomas said. "That would be pretty legit."

Thomas values that off-the-court relationship with coaches as well and says that is one of the main things drawing him to the Illini program.

"My mom thinks Groce is a really family-oriented type of man," Thomas said. "He says he wouldn't put anyone around his players that he wouldn't put around his own sons. So that means a lot for my mom. He pushes his players but he lets them have fun. He's always there for them."

Thomas is building a great relationship with Groce, but he has many other schools to consider and many other relationships to build.

Thomas recently named an early list of 24 favorites from the 56 offers he's accumulated to this point.

"As you mature and as you get older and you figure out what you really want in a college there comes a time where you have to be mature about it, and its like you have to let the schools know 'thank you for recruiting me, its an honor for me to be a recruited player on your list, but the school just doesn't fit my program,'" Thomas says. "So you just have to let them go."

The list includes schools such as Indiana, Louisville, Ohio State, and Michigan. That's the type of competition Illinois is dealing with.

However, there is something that makes Illinois stand out.

"They were the first Big Ten school to offer me, so they saw the high level of play and that I could fit their system instantly," Thomas said. "When I was in eighth or ninth grade they offered me a scholarship so that meant a lot to me. They automatically separated from the pack instantly from there."

Thomas also says the Illinois staff has been consistently in contact with him since offering. While interest and communication by coaches from other schools has seemingly risen and fallen and risen again, Illinois has been a constant.

"When I got out of shape this summer, I went from 240 to like 270," Thomas said. "I hurt myself and I was out for like three weeks. I was talking to (Illinois assistant Jamall) Walker, and he was just telling me how to stay in shape and how to eat the right things and what exercises to do. You can really honestly tell how family oriented Illinois really is."

Thomas speaks about a number of things that separates the Illini from the other 23 prospective schools, such as his respect for Meyers Leonard, and his mother's fondness for the exciting style of play. But there is one thing that Thomas says is most important-and extremely unique.

"Coach Groce told me something very important," Thomas said. "He said they had a chaplain. That was the first college that ever told me they had a chaplain, so I'm pretty sure if my mom knew that she would love it. Having the chapel separates them from everyone. That's our main thing- God first."

Thomas says the recruiting process can get stressful, but it's that relationship he has with God that gets him through the process.

"I go to church every Sunday. I pray every night and every morning, so its trusting God, Thomas said. "Trusting God to get me through the whole thing, My family and my coaches, they just talk to me about it and guide me through it."

His support system is going to help Thomas get through the decision-making process. Thomas plans to go on three to four unofficial visits this season in hopes of cutting the list down from 24 to 10.

But there is one specific thing he dreams of when it comes to visiting college campuses.

"I've always wanted to go on a visit and during the game they just start screaming your name. That is something anyone would want," Thomas said. "That's just like an automatic 10 points in being recruited. You know? That would be, like, the coolest thing ever."

However, there is something about the Illini basketball program that Thomas doesn't think is the "coolest thing ever."

"I wish they could wear Jordans. Just like some school color Jordans," Thomas said. "I honestly wish they could do that. That would be a huge booster along with everything else Illinois has to offer."

A process that Thomas wants to ultimately lead him to professional basketball.

"I don't want to just make it to the NBA, says Thomas. "I want to be the greatest to ever play, so for me, its about being great. Not just making it."

A mindset similar to that of the great Michael Jordan -- even if he wouldn't be able to wear the shoes.

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