John Groce and the Illinois basketball staff had a prime opportunity to state their claim with a pair of top 2016 targets this past weekend, as Xavier Simpson and Xavier Sneed took official visits to Champaign.
It was arguably the most crucial weekend on the Illini visit slate, given what the X-Men could bring to the program. Hosting both players at once was a blessing and a challenge, but the staff rose to the occasion. They impressed with their overall presentation, while showcasing a variety of selling points to each prospect.
The Illini came away feeling good about what they put on the table. Even though neither committed on the visit, there's good reason to believe that Illinois made a strong push with Simpson and Sneed. Both players left campus with a great impression of the program and the opportunity that lies ahead in Champaign.
"It went great," Sneed said. "I am very impressed in what the school has to offer me."
Sneed added that one of the most impressive aspects is the academics. He has made that a big part of his decision. As for on the court, the Illini sold him on the need for his skill set on the roster.
"They talked a lot about how they are in need of what I could bring to their team with athleticism, defense and shooting ability," Sneed said.
Meanwhile, the need is obvious at the point guard position and Simpson is exactly the kind of answer Groce has in mind. Quincey Simpson (Xavier's father) said the pitch focused around the fit at Illinois and how much success could be in store.
"They're trying to recruit guys that are winners. Trying to recruit guys that do the right thing on and off the floor," Quincey Simpson said. "They've got some great pieces around X if he decided to come here. Really think it could be a great fit for him."
The Illini have no shortage of selling points when it comes to pitching Xavier Simpson on being the man in Groce's system.
"Their style of play is very conducive to his game. They got coaches that are high-energy coaches," Quincey Simpson said. "At that level, you get the best of both worlds."
He added that the most impressive part about the visit was the staff's presentation and sincerity. The Simpsons have said they have a great relationship with the coaches, and after getting an up-close look at the program, they were excited about everything it has to offer.
"The visit was great. The coaching staff was real and the players were really cool," Quincey Simpson said. "The facilities were nice. The academic standpoint is exceptional. It was a great visit overall."
Current Players Stepped Up
Groce and his staff weren't alone in selling Simpson and Sneed on Illinois, as they got help from their current players. Each visitor had a player host, and the Illini chose them wisely this past weekend. Junior forward Malcolm Hill was the host for Sneed, and he played a key role in the visit experience.
"Malcolm Hill hosted me and it was really informational from a player's perspective," Sneed said. "I had a great time with him."
Hill will likely be a first-team All-Big Ten candidate when Sneed enters the college ranks during the 2016-17 season. Sneed could make an impact right away with his athletic ability and lockdown defense. He could also secure Hill's starting role once the star forward concludes his career in Champaign.
As for Simpson, the Illini were focused on selling the future of the backcourt by having freshman Jalen Coleman-Lands play host. There's no question that would be a dynamite duo, and the Simpsons have familiarity with Coleman-Lands from the EYBL circuit.
"He and I are good with Coleman," Quincey Simpson said. "They know each other from the AAU circuit and the LeBron skills camp. So they have a little bit of a relationship previously. That's who we hung out with the majority of the time, so that went well."
Simpson's ability as a drive-and-dish facilitator would fit perfectly with Coleman-Lands' lethal outside stroke. They also have complementary personalities with a quiet demeanor, will to work and thirst for winning.
Superheroes are meant to team up, right? The Illini certainly hope so when it comes to the X-Men. They wouldn't have hosted them during the same weekend if they felt otherwise.
Getting Simpson and Sneed together in the 2016 class would be a major win for the program. Both players competed on the EYBL circuit this summer.
"We played against each other in the league this summer," Sneed said. "He's a great point guard. One of the best in the nation."
Sneed added that he and Simpson talked "a little" bit this past weekend about the possibilities.
"If we landed together, it would be an exciting time," he said.
Going From Here
Illini fans would have loved for a commitment over the weekend, but they'll have to wait it out with both guys. Sneed told IlliniInquirer.com that he will take an official visit to Kansas State this weekend. As for the plans after that, he said things are still up in the air. Xavier has been considered a significant player as well, but there is a good chance that Sneed makes a decision after his trip to Kansas State.
Illinois entered the month of August as the perceived favorite for the 6-foot-5 small forward. That is still the case after his visit to Champaign, and the Illini may be well on their way to securing a pledge. The key is sustaining that momentum with Sneed after the visit date has past.
Believe it or not, the Illini could be in a similar spot with Xavier Simpson. Heading into the visit weekend, Illinois and Miami appeared to be ahead of Iowa State in the race. The Cyclones received the first official visit on Aug. 7, but the buzz has died down significantly since then. Furthermore, they added a commitment from JUCO point guard Donovan Jackson on Sunday night.
Given the excitement around his Illini visit and the fact that he hasn't taken other visits yet, you could make the case that Illinois is leading for Xavier Simpson right now. But none of that matters until visits are over and a decision is ready to be made. According to Quincey Simpson, they are still planning to make more trips.
"We may go to Wisconsin next weekend. We're scheduled to go to Miami on the 11th," he said. "We'll go there and then make a decision shortly after that visit."
Some have said that Xavier Simpson may cancel his Miami visit, but that would only happen if he was 100 percent sold on Illinois. That simply hasn't transpired to this point, as the family plans to talk about the situation early this week. But the sell seems to fit perfectly with the prized playmaker, and having family in Champaign helps as well.
"We got a lot of family that is here in Champaign," Quincey Simpson said. "So it'd be like a home away from home for Xavier. He'd be around family here and I'd feel real comfortable with him being here."
Two weeks ago, Illinois fans were frustrated that the Simpsons would not publicly lock in a visit date. They said it showed that their interest in the program was less than legit. Now, many are ready to throw the welcome parade. That is an odd transition, and this recruitment has been more unpredictable than most.
Assuming anything as a guarantee at this point seems dangerous. Where does Illinois truly stand, according to Quincey Simpson?
"We have only been on two visits with Iowa State and Illinois. Both visits were great," he said. "But we're definitely high on Illinois."
Xavier Simpson wouldn't be the only high-level point guard that the Illini have been 'in the lead' with after a visit over the last few years. Groce and his staff have to close the deal, while Miami will make that as difficult as possible.