The Illinois basketball program is proof that landing a prized point guard isn't nearly as simple as it sounds.
Recruiting is both complicated and unpredictable. It's easily one of the most difficult aspects of the job description. The Illini staff has been painfully close with a handful of household names, only to go empty-handed.
But John Groce and his group have pushed on without any excuses. There is a lot to sell to potential playmakers. The opportunity to take the keys of a Big Ten program from the beginning isn't one you can find lying around anywhere. The likeability of the staff and passion of the fan base are bonuses. Illinois' ball-screen offense is attractive as well. It also shouldn't be forgotten that Groce coached one of the most statistically successful point guards in Division I history at Ohio in D.J. Cooper.
Basic logic suggests that heading into Year Four of his tenure, Groce should have the answer by now. So why has finding that answer been more like solving a rocket science equation? It's not something that anyone in Champaign can definitively explain.
As a math guy, Groce is focused on future solutions instead of past problems. He and his staff have worked tirelessly to set up another lineup of worthy candidates in the 2016 class, and they've done that with Charlie Moore, Xavier Simpson, Te'Jon Lucas and Bryce Aiken. They've evaluated, prioritized and laid a foundation with the current group. The next step is getting them on campus and taking their swings.
The peak period of the recruiting season is among us. Official visits will soon kick off. The Illini have one set in stone with three-star small forward Xavier Sneed on August 28th, but fans were anxious to see the same with the key point guard targets. They got their wish on Wednesday, as Moore confirmed to IlliniInquirer.com that he will take an official visit to Champaign on Sept. 25th. The staff is working on finalizing visits with Lucas and Simpson as well.
As the running mate to Marcus LoVett in the Morgan Park backcourt last season, Moore has gone from a second thought to a must-get for the Illini in a span of five months. He dazzled on the AAU circuit this summer with the Mac Irvin Fire, and he quickly became a top priority for the home-state program. The Illini are hopeful that they can land the best 2016 prospect in their backyard, but it won't necessarily be easy. Moore has visits set to Cal (9/11), Pittsburgh (9/18), Illinois (9/25) and Memphis (10/2).
Simpson has the highest stock of the group. He was extremely impressive all summer long, as he proved to be one of the top performers in the EYBL at the Peach Jam last month. The Illini have put quite a bit of effort in this recruitment since extending an offer back in January. They have continuously pushed to get Simpson on campus, but that has not happened to this point. He was originally planning to take an unofficial visit to Champaign in June until his busy schedule wiped those plans away. This month, Illinois has done their best to lock in an official visit. Simpson took an official to Iowa State on August 7th, and he intends to take an official to Miami on Sept. 11th. A few weeks ago, the Illini were told that Simpson would take a visit at the end of this month. But that has yet to materialize.
Lucas has held an Illini offer for less than a month, but he has already become a key piece to the puzzle. The Milwaukee native took an unofficial visit to Champaign on August 7th. Lucas was one of the best distributors on the AAU circuit during the July evaluation periods. His recruitment has blown up in a hurry over the last few weeks, and it will be interesting to see how it transpires going forward. Lucas has official visits set up to USC (9/4), Old Dominion (9/11) and Memphis (9/18) next month. The Illini are looking to insert themselves into the official visit picture as well.
Oddly enough, Illinois offered Aiken a scholarship long before the previous three. Yet, he may be No. 4 on the current point guard priority list. Aiken had a solid showing this summer, and he shot the ball well at the Peach Jam last month. However, it became obvious that he was a step below Moore and Simpson. Like Simpson, Aiken had plans to travel to Champaign for an unofficial visit a few months back but he did not make the trip. Aiken cut his list to six earlier this month, and the Illini were on it. He has said that he plans to take an official visit to Illinois before he makes his decision. But for now, his only solidified visit plans are to Harvard (9/11) and Miami (9/25).
Plan of Action
Staffs around the country put hours upon hours of thought into their official visit schedules. It is truly a balancing act with consideration to a variety of factors: priority, timing, momentum and attainability. Every detail is important, and finding the right mix can be the difference between success and failure.
With the desperate need at the point guard position, the Illini have no room for failure in the 2016 class. One way or another, they have to get a Big Ten level point guard to sign on the dotted line when it's all said and done. That is a factor in itself, and it will likely bring about a different strategy than we've seen from Groce's staff in the past.
The Illini would love to have Simpson, who is clearly the most Big Ten-ready prospect on this list. But the fact that they haven't been able to land a visit to this point might say something. Miami offered Simpson just over two weeks ago and they already have an official lined up. The Simpson camp has been rather inconsistent in their statements about visiting Illinois. They have told the Illini they are coming, but to the media, nothing is set in stone. However, Quincey Simpson (Xavier's father) recently told Scout.com that Illinois and Indiana "seem to be looking good on visits".
Illinois originally hoped to get Simpson on campus on August 28th, but this may be a good opportunity to readjust their sights. With Simpson heading to Miami on Sept. 11th, the Illini could aim at Sept. 18th for an official or try to get in with one before. Ultimately, the time is coming for the Illini to say "lock in a visit or we're out". But if they are able to land a visit on the 18th, it would set up nicely with the rest of their potential slate.
Moore is scheduled for a visit the following weekend on Sept. 25th. He will certainly get a crack at taking the spot, as Simpson would too--if he wants it.
The same scenario would follow with Lucas, who could visit Illinois on Oct. 2nd. This would come after his three trips to USC, Old Dominion and Memphis. That would make for a big trio of visits lined up in Champaign in consecutive weekends. The Illini have not locked in a date with Lucas, and they could take Purdue's original spot on August 28th or get him on campus during the week earlier in September. However, later may be better in this one based on the assumed timing of his decision and Illinois' priority list. The Illini could potentially slot Aiken in the mix as well, although his recruitment looks to be swaying in another direction.
Many Illini fans will wonder how this year will be different from the last, when the program took back-to-back swings at Jalen Brunson and Jawun Evans. There are a number of theories on why Illinois did not land Evans. One is that they did not push hard enough for him to commit on the visit, as they held out for Brunson. It's hard to know if that was the case, although the Illini did attempt to gauge Brunson's situation while Evans was on campus.
You can be assured that Groce and his staff won't allocate any effort for that this time around. They will have one point guard in mind when each of the three take their respective visits. On top of that, they will gladly take a commitment from any without thinking twice about it. This situation is too crucial to approach it any other way.
Until Groce has a point guard in hand, his five-month-old daughter won't be the only thing keeping him awake at night.