Illini Inquirer publisher Jeremy Werner and lead basketball reporter Derek Piper exchanged e-mails on Wednesday following Xavier Simpson's commitment to Michigan. The topic: why has John Groce, entering his fourth season as Illinois head basketball coach, failed to land his lead point guard? This was their conversation:
Jeremy Werner: I'm thinking of Demetri McCamey today. He was a guy who never fully seemed appreciated by Illini fans during his four seasons here. His career averages: 12.4 ppg, 5.3 apg, 2.9 tpg, 42.5% FG, 36.1% 3FG. Maybe he was a victim of being the post-Dee Brown point guard. He had some weaknesses (often voiced by his head coach), but he was a heck of a Big Ten point guard. Given the current state of affairs, Illini fans surely appreciate McCamey now.
So Xavier Simpson picks Michigan in a bit of a shocker, given that the Wolverines weren't on the final list of four that Simpson released earlier this week. But Michigan obviously is the sexier program. Injuries ravaged the Wolverines last season, but John Beilein's squad went to the Elite Eight and the national championship game the two previous season and destroyed Illinois in the Big Ten Tournament last March.
Of course, this is tough to take because it's another close-but-no-cigar finish for the Illini.
Three years, no point guard -- so far. At some point, you have to stop accepting "It's not you, it's me," when your sales pitch continues to fail.
So, Mr. Piper, is there an over-riding flaw to Illinois' point guard pursuit or is it more complicated than that?
Derek Piper: It's hard to argue with results, or the lack thereof. Something has to be off if you're going into Year Four and the only point guard recruit you've landed is Jaylon Tate. Now, you miss on Simpson and begin to sweat on Charlie Moore and Te'Jon Lucas. There has to be a better way.
Last class, John Groce took swings at a pair of five-stars in Jalen Brunson and Jawun Evans. There was reason to believe they could aim high after being on the wrong end of the Quentin Snider drama. But the Illini didn't give themselves room for a legitimate insurance plan. They could have done so with Glynn Watson, who is the brother of the aforementioned McCamey, but they rolled the dice on Brunson and Evans instead. Now, Watson is set to be a nice piece for Tim Miles at Nebraska.
As for the 2016 class, the Illini aimed a bit lower but still found themselves chasing two of the top point guards in the Midwest. Groce has a ton to sell at that position, and he could very well end up with Moore, but it won't be pretty if he misses again. Lucas is a nice option, and today he set up an official visit to Illinois on the weekend of Sept. 18. It seemed like they caught Lucas' attention after the unofficial visit at the beginning of August.
It's a lot easier to dissect now that things have played out, but it's probably fair to say Illinois has been too hopeful and too picky. I'm glad you brought up McCamey, and not only because he was the last high impact guy at the position. The Illini played that situation perfectly by getting McCamey early (June 2006) and still taking a "let's see" swing at Derrick Rose. Illinois lost out on Rose, and they lost their top committed prospect in Eric Gordon, but they still had McCamey at the end of the day for the 2007 class.
Recruiting misfortunes happen to everybody, but it is important to not be left empty-handed despite some uncontrollable factors. Can you blame Groce for taking a shot at some top options? No, but you certainly wonder about his lack of insurance.
Werner: You have to commend Groce for going for program-changing guards.
Now, I start this conversation fully admitting that hindsight is 20/20. I'm not saying I know better than Groce or his staff. They are much more qualified to recruit than I ever would be, and they have landed some really nice talents -- which is what makes this point guard dilemma so perplexing.
But let's start in 2013. The staff got a late starter on that class but went after Demetrius Jackson, probably knowing Notre Dame would be extremely difficult to beat out. They went after Xavier Rathan-Mayes, knowing Florida State would be tough to beat out. And they probably knew they could have Tate if they wanted him. But was there anyone they overlooked?
Piper: I have to agree with you in that there's a reason Groce and his assistants make the big bucks to decide on these things. But when you look back on it, there are certainly some different moves that could have been made.
Like you said, Illinois knew they could get Tate and they wanted to build up that Simeon connection. He was the obvious move after missing on Jackson and Rathan-Mayes. But maybe Illinois should have offered another Chicago point guard instead: Kyle Davis. The Morgan Park product received interest from the Illini but he ended up committing to Dayton in August of 2012. Illinois would have needed to offer before knowing the end result on Jackson and Rathan-Mayes, but it would have been a great insurance policy.
Like Tate, Davis was a three-star prospect. But the results at the next level have been different. Davis started every game for the Flyers last season on their way to the NCAA tournament. He averaged 7.1 points, 2.8 rebounds and 2.4 assists per game, while also being named the team's top defender. The knock on Davis is that he shot just over 22 percent from three last year. But Tate shot just above eight percent from deep and he averaged 3.6 points per game.
It wouldn't have hurt to offer Monte Morris either. The Illini showed interest in the Michigan native but did not pull the trigger. Granted, it would have been tough to make up ground in that recruitment, especially since Morris picked Iowa State less than three months after Groce was announced as the man in Champaign. But after seeing what Morris has become - likely an NBA Draft pick after this season - maybe they should have offered just for the heck of it.
Werner: That brings us to 2014. Illinois had Quentin Snider. They HAD him. And then JaQuan Lyle (a former Illini target) decommitted from Louisville, leading Snider back to his dream hometown school -- and Lyle ends up at Big Ten rival Ohio State (ugh).
I said on Nov. 15, 2013 -- the day Cliff Alexander chose Kansas over Illinois -- that Snider's decommitment would hurt more in the long run. He was a four-year player and the long-term answer to your biggest long-term need. Snider, of course, was huge during Louisville's run to the Elite Eight last season.
It's hard to blame the staff for Snider's decision. But again, they were left with no recourse. They were a bit fortunate that Snider became available late in the process (Illinois had no PG commit before then) and then were relying on a still-new relationship when they landed him.
As you look at that 2014 class, was it just bad fortune with Snider or were there other guys they could've picked up or pursued earlier? I'm not sure Larry Austin Jr. would make Illini fans feel a ton better, but he's an upgrade over what they got at point guard the next two recruiting classes (nothing). Again, hindsight...
Piper: Yeah, JaQuan Lyle certainly didn't do Illinois any favors for a variety of reasons. In this case, Snider was unhappy when Lyle committed to Louisville and Illinois capitalized on the opportunity when he decommitted. It seemed like something special was brewing in Champaign with John Groce's magic touch. He got Leron Black to commit on his visit at the beginning of September. Less than two weeks later, Snider committed to the Illini as well. All the while, Cliff Alexander was becoming a very real possibility.
But of course, it was all too good to be true. Snider and his family had their hearts set on Louisville and they jumped at the chance to stay home when Lyle decommitted. It turned out to be the first of many tough breaks for Groce and this staff. As you said, it's really hard to find blame in how Illinois approached this situation. It was a prime opportunity and one that seemed like a blessing rather than a curse.
Who would have guessed that Illinois would fail to land a point guard after Snider? You can say that Larry Austin Jr. is better than nothing, but he really hasn't proven to be a quality point guard at the next level. Just a tough break for Illinois and it's one that has obviously snowballed.
Werner: I'm with you. So maybe we can chalk 2014 mostly up to bad luck.
But 2015 is where it really gets interesting. The Illini cast a wide net, but obviously focused on Jalen Brunson and Jawun Evans. Either one would've been a perfect fit for the Illini. But Illinois had to juggle the two and ended up with neither.
Some have told me the Illini never had a chance with Evans, but he kept telling the staff they were in it -- so what do you do? Some told me Brunson never was going to Illinois, but others say it was a real possibility. And if you've seen Brunson play -- oh boy! That's your program-changer no matter what school you are, so you have to pursue him if he's pursuing you.
I can't fault them for pursuing elite talents. But did they fault in not fully pursuing a more "gettable" option, say another 75-150 recruit? Would that have kept Brunson or Evans from considering them?
But here's what I'm really interested in. Is Illinois trusting the right people or earned the trust of the right people? Are they correctly reading who's running the show or if those people are being honest with them?
This is probably tough to know, but I think it's fair to re-evaluate everything at this point.
Piper: Those are some tough questions and 2015 was a hard one to manage. There was so much opportunity and it only seemed right that Illinois would right their misfortunes with Snider by landing one of these guys. The Illini were ultimately told they would be there at the end for Evans and Brunson. Heading into the official visits, they were one of the top two choices for both. I'm not a math guy, but one of the top two with a pair of McDonald's All-Americans seemed like a recipe for success to me.
Ultimately, it wasn't and each situation had their reasons for going against Illinois. I could get into all that but it might take the rest of the night. Should the Illini have played it safer and got a mid-level guy instead of just shooting for the stars? I think anyone will tell you now that would have been a better plan. Groce and his staff devoted so much time and effort between the two that other point guard targets were essentially afterthoughts.
They figured they could do better than Glynn Watson. They offered Justin Robinson out of D.C. but he was never a big priority. I liked Robinson quite a bit and he would have been someone who'd be solid but wouldn't discourage Evans and Brunson. Ultimately, Robinson chose Virginia Tech, which allowed him to stay close to home and play right away. So maybe Illinois wouldn't have been a good fit. Watson will also get immediate playing time at Nebraska. Maybe the pursuit of Evans and Brunson would have scared them away. That part is hard to know, but Illinois could have afforded to take two point guards if they wanted to do so.
As for trusting the right people, that is really difficult because sometimes there is no choice. It's not typically hard to figure out who is running the recruitment. How honest are they being with you? That is another question, and you're really forced to trust them unless there is an obvious reason not to. Even then, there's the temptation to hope.
I think you can say that Illinois has hoped too much. They've gotten in deep in certain recruitments, were told they'd have a shot at the end and they hung on just to find out. It's a tough game, and unfortunately, there is a lot of dishonesty that goes on. But it's hard to really know what to believe until things begin to play out. A recruit could feel like one place is where he wants to go, but other influences lead him to choose a different destination. You try to have the best pulse you can with the player, the family, the AAU team, friends, etc. but that doesn't mean you're going to get the true story from all of them - or any of them.
Werner: Recruiting, man. That's why you have to be a little crazy to be a college coach -- relying on the decisions of 16- to 18-year-olds (or whoever is pulling the strings). If the answers were so easy, everyone would be great at it.
So with Simpson out, it's down to Te'Jon Lucas (visiting Illinois on Sept. 18) and Charlie Moore (visiting Illinois on Sept. 25). I don't know if I'd say either of these guys make or break John Groce, but just how significant is landing one of these guys to the future of Groce's tenure?
Piper: Aside from the on-court showing this season, I think this is the biggest key to him sticking around. It's no secret that it will be tough for this year's team to make the NCAA tournament. If they miss, it will be the third year in a row - the longest streak since the 1970s. You can't have that and also fail to land a Big Ten quality point guard on the recruiting trail heading into Year Five. If that happens, I don't know how you can justify remaining status quo at the top.
Groce and this staff have their work cut out for them. They still have an opportunity to get it done, but if it wasn't crunch time before, it definitely is now. Point guard is the most important position in college basketball, and a big reason Groce got the job in Champaign was because of his recruiting success. The failures at that key position are stacked high, and two more with Moore and Lucas would be the tipping point - in my opinion.