PIPER: The circus ain't always fun

Lead basketball reporter Derek Piper breaks down the challenges of high-level recruiting.

Recruiting is one of the most intriguing parts of any high-major coaching job in college basketball.

You have the ability to identify and pursue talent far and wide. You forge relationships with recruits, their parents, their coaches and their "handlers." You utilize your natural geographic territories. You establish well-placed connections to keep the talent flow coming from a certain area.

Illinois head coach John Groce made his name in the coaching ranks through his successful recruiting. He was named National Recruiter of the Year in 2006 by Rivals, as he helped Ohio State land the No. 2 class in the country with the likes of Greg OdenMike ConleyDaequan Cook and David Lighty.

The Buckeyes followed that up with another top-10 class in 2007, and Groce landed the head job at Ohio after the 2007-08 season. Two NCAA appearances and a Sweet Sixteen berth later, Groce took over the reins in Champaign, where the Illinois program was 11th in winning percentage in D-1 history.

But the same avenue that allowed Groce to shoot up to one of the top echelons of the profession has recently been filled with road blocks, pot holes and dead ends. While Groce has felt the rewards of recruiting, he and his Illini staff have dealt with its frustrating, head-throbbing side effects over the past few years.

Ultimately, that's the nature of the game. Unless you're Kansas, Kentucky, North Carolina or Duke, you're going to be told 'no' more than you're told 'yes'. But it's the recurring chase, unending hurdle-jumping and unseen exertion of effort that become exhausting.

"Damned if you do..."

The final day of the late signing period came and went on Wednesday, and Illinois Mr. Basketball winner Charlie Moore announced his commitment to California.

Moore, who was the point guard Illinois wanted when official visit season began last fall, decommitted from Memphis on April 8 after Josh Pastner left for Georgia Tech. For the first two weeks afterwards, no Illini involvement was reported. The critics came calling.

In reality, Illinois was there. They gauged the situation. They met with Moore in Chicago on April 18. But they were in a tough spot from the beginning.

You're wrong if you don't go after the state's top player in 2016 if he becomes available. You're wrong if you recruit over four-star point guard commit Te'Jon Lucas and go after him.

The only way to win is to win the recruitment, and that's been a struggle for the Illini with top talents in Chicago. Even more so with point guards. Even more so with players from the Mac Irvin Fire program.

To date, the only Mac Irvin Fire player Groce has landed during his tenure at Illinois is four-star 2017 guard Da'Monte Williams. But it's no secret the Manual product's recruitment was based in Peoria with no influential ties to the north.

Moore's recruitment was a different story -- a quintessential headache. Illinois seemed like the perfect landing spot for Moore, but the process kept dragging out. That continued (rightfully so) after Moore's father had a stroke in early September. The Illini couldn't wait any longer and they took Lucas.

During Moore's second recruitment this spring, Illinois once again had factors that figured to be riding in their favor. The relationship was there. The proximity to home was there. The opportunity was there. Moore took visits to LSU, Georgia Tech and SMU -- and he said he'd visit Illinois to close it out.

That visit didn't come, and much of it had to do with Illinois not having an available scholarship. But even if they did, it became more and more apparent that another disappointment was likely waiting.

There were a number of reasons why Illinois should win. But there were a select few that explained why they wouldn't. With no available scholarship or other dictated necessities, Illinois had a good hand but suffered another bad beat.

The ugly truth

The ugly truth about certain high-level recruitments is that truth and fairness aren't necessarily common practices. Far more common are empty promises, open hands, outside motives and blatant trickery (see Cliff Alexander).

Illinois saw a good amount of that firsthand just in their point guard pursuit in the 2016 class. The Illini went into the final heat with three point guards on their board: Moore, Xavier Simpson and Lucas. Moore and Simpson took priority being top-100 talents, but Lucas wasn't far off from making the cut.

Simpson was the first to take an official visit to Champaign in late August. But games were played throughout that chase. Simpson's dad knew he had the script in hand, and he could flip it as he pleased. Illinois had an official visit scheduled for weeks, but Simpson's dad waffled about it publicly.

The Illini finally got it locked in, and the visit went as well as it could have gone. Wisconsin came on with an offer and they got a visit. Miami had a visit slated but it got cancelled. It seemed like an Illinois vs. Wisconsin race. The popular pick was Wisconsin in the days following the visit.

But the Simpsons continued to tell Illinois otherwise. On decision day, word got around that it wasn't Wisconsin. So it was Illinois, right? No, it was Michigan -- a team that wasn't even on Simpson's list. A visit that was facilitated and made in secrecy.

Appreciation needed

Unfortunately, there isn't a clear-cut fix for the problems previously described. Illinois has to go after some high-caliber players in order to be a high-caliber program, especially in their own state.

Top talents will arise in Chicago and they will put on the Mac Irivn Fire jersey, and Illinois will need to go after them. Even if it's at the risk of being Wile E. Coyote chasing Road Runner, or Charlie Brown trying to kick the football once again.

But at the same time, Groce and his staff have molded their strategy through each class. And the issues in certain recruitments should not hide obvious successes.

The Illini landed top-20 classes in 2013 and 2015. The 2013 class featured Malcolm Hill and Kendrick Nunn. How much credit Groce deserves for that class will hinge on the results of next season. Neither player has been to the NCAA tournament. Nunn's status on the roster is still uncertain, as is Jaylon Tate's -- who was also part of that class.

Hill was originally a Bruce Weber recruit, but Groce had to retain him. Now, Hill is set to be a Big Ten Player of the Year candidate in his senior season.

The 2015 class still has to play itself out, but the Illini already know they've got a bona fide scorer in Jalen Coleman-Lands. He broke the program's freshman three-point record last season, and many more treys are to come. Illinois also saw positive flashes from D.J. Williams, who Scout.com analyst Brian Snow said has the upside to be a pro if he puts it all together.

Then you have the 2016 class. Based on the rankings, Illinois is last in the Big Ten in this class. But that's not really a fair baseline given that Illinois' class has just one player: Lucas.

He's not listed as a top-100 prospect. He's not a Mr. Basketball winner. But the Illini faithful should feel pretty darn lucky to have Lucas. He's in the ballpark of talent with Moore and Simpson, minus the drama.

Lucas was under the radar on the AAU circuit, and he put together a great senior campaign until suffering a fractured ankle. But there's no doubt the Illini have a four-year point guard who is an outstanding facilitator, great in the ball-screen offense and can score it when needed.

Michigan had Lucas as their backup option if they didn't get Cassius Winston, but then Simpson entered the fold. Meanwhile, the Illini recruited Lucas like a priority and he reciprocated that love.

Ultimately, he wanted to wear the orange and blue. And he will put on that practice jersey for the first time next month. Downstate talents like Williams and Javon Pickett have also showed their loyalty by making early pledges in the 2017 class.

Going forward

If you don't recruit, you don't win. It's easy to focus on failures and misses. Some are warranted for criticism. Others are beyond a certain level of control.

Certain things about recruiting aren't going to change. The hunger for attention will be there. The dishonesty will be there. The results of playing a game that's not monitored at all times by three officials on a 94' x 50' court will be there.

But here's what Illinois fans should take away: Moore going elsewhere...again...is a great reminder of how much Lucas meant to the program. And there is plenty of opportunity out there in the 2017 class.

Once again, the Illini will likely be in for another wild ride. Groce has landed two top-20 classes, but he has to make the class in 2017 his best yet.

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