My Take on Cliff

CHICAGO - Coach John Groce's name wasn't among those on the sign-in sheet.

CHICAGO - Coach John Groce's name wasn't among those on the sign-in sheet.

Taylor Rooks was busy having her items scanned and walking through the metal detector next to the front desk.

I checked through the log and looked back out the window to see if a vehicle that might look like something the head coach of Illinois would drive was sitting the parking lot of Curie Metro High School.

"We're here to see Cliff Alexander," Taylor told the lady at the front desk.

"He's in the gym."

As it turned out, so was Groce.

I had heard he was going to stop by to see Alexander after handling his duties at Big Ten Media Day. I had also heard that idea had been nixed. You never know.

Taylor has been all over the Cliff recruitment so we decided to go see what the deal was firsthand.

Sure enough, Groce was the first thing I noticed when we pushed open the door to the gym. He and assistant Paris Parham were on the baseline, hanging with some coaches and watching Alexander and others shoot baskets. Groce was leaned up against the wall, greeting every person, kid, coach, reporter, whoever, as they walked by. Parham was working the crowd a little. Nobody's more comfortable in Chicago than him.

It was an evaluation visit, which meant Groce couldn't talk much to any players. Other than hello, how ya doing, Groce's visit was more to let everybody know he cares and how, 16 days away from Alexander's scheduled announcement, important this whole thing is.

Alexander was already sweating. Groce had beaten us to his court side seat by about 30 minutes and Cliff was just now extending to the 3-point line.

There's something about watching a 6-foot-9, 250-pound person take and make 20-plus foot shots that doesn't feel natural. It's because it's not. At one point, Cliff missed a few in a row.

"He's missing a lot," Taylor said. But he was missing in a good way, the ball just catching the front of the rim and softly bouncing off the backboard or the side of the cylinder.

Then came the 3-on-2, 2-on-1 drill. There were some good athletes on the court, but this wasn't fair. Or maybe it was fair, just not equal. Cliff ran the wing. He manned the point. He crashed the boards. He hustled back. Most of all, he dunked. He dunked so damn hard.

The best sequence came when he finished an alley oop, jumped ahead in line for the very next rep and drained a trey on the other end.

I found myself thinking... Seriously?! ... Man... Damn... Just wow... Mostly I shook my head and smiled.

Soon it was back to shooting. Groce looked like he was about to head to the house. He hauled in a long rebound, bounced it to Cliff, who then in what seemed like one motion caught it and slammed it. Harder than ever, too. Groce waved goodbye and hit the door.

No longer a potential burden on the recruiting process, Taylor and I started talking to Condors head coach Michael Oliver and a group of assistants. Oliver showed us around the school and we talked about Cliff's former days as a football player and student in the automotive field. Neither of those stuck.

Taylor began setting up her camera for this interview. In it, she learned Cliff had cut Michigan State, and he had nothing but nice things to say for remaining contenders DePaul, Illinois, Kansas and Memphis.

After spending months following this whole ordeal and hours Thursday talking to people pretty darn close to it… I'll tell you a few things, some of which you probably already know.

Cliff isn't going to DePaul and Memphis. It's gonna be Illinois or Kansas. And don't be so sure he's not going to take any unofficial visits before now and his decision. You're not gonna know about them because he's not going to tell anybody on the record.

Just know that his official to Illinois wasn't the only time he'd been in Champaign this fall, nor was that the only time he'd been elsewhere and nobody tweeted or talked about it.

As of right now, do I think Cliff knows where he's going? No. I think Illinois has a good shot though. That's not something I would have said even a month ago. Let me be clear, I still give the Jayhawks the advantage at this moment.

Here are the contrasting angles he's currently mulling over.

Cliff sees what Groce is building and he's bought into both Groce the person and Groce's program. He thinks he could be the man at his home state school. There's plenty of appeal to that pitch.

Kansas, though, could help him grow his brand. It's hard to deny what Bill Self has done and built (at both Illinois and Kansas). He's produced elite teams by attracting elite players because he sends plenty of guys to the elite league after they've made elite runs in college. Sure, every season and every player hasn't worked out that way. But recruits tend to see the glaring good over blips of bad.

This isn't an exact comparison, but Andrew Wiggins turned down a school with strong family ties in FSU and opted for Lawrence. Was it surprising? Sure at the time because hardly anybody thought that would happen. Looking back on it, is it really that surprising? No.

Those looking at this objectively would probably agree that Cliff can't go wrong with either pick. He's not planning on staying around very long and he says he's comfortable with both schools and both staffs. I'm not going to say this is a battle of the heart versus the mind. But there's probably some of that going on here, too.

Would I say Illinois is the favorite? No. But I won't say the Illini are out of it either. Hey, that's all you can ask when five-star Chicago kids that make you think the things I did Thursday during that 3-on-2, 2-on-1 drill are involved.


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