One of the most attractive attributes on John Groce's resume that led him to getting the job in Champaign was his proven ability to recruit. Groce was able to build relationships with high-profile prospects and land them as an assistant at Ohio State. And at Ohio, he identified talent and outrecruited other programs to assemble a roster capable of late-season runs and tournament success.
The 2013 class was Groce's first shot at molding the Illini roster. He inherited seniors in Brandon Paul, D.J. Richardson and Tyler Griffey. He had some sophomores worth keeping in Nnanna Egwu and Tracy Abrams. He had others that weren't. And he had a ready-made scorer in Rayvonte Rice signed up to contribute after the transfer sit-out year. But he needed more. He needed to bring in at least a couple foundational pieces to impact in the short term and star in the long term.
Illinois needed just about everything. The roster wasn't exactly handed over in tip-top shape by Bruce Weber. Groce needed another point guard. He wanted one that would be 'his guy'. A dynamic talent that could spearhead his system. He needed some big guys. After Egwu, he had Mike Shaw and Ibby Djimde. And he needed some cornerstone wings.
Kendrick Nunn - Simeon (Ill.) SG
4-star & No. 52 overall in the Scout.com rankings
Once a Texas A&M pledge, Nunn decommitted from the Aggies in September of his junior year -- less than two months after committing. When Groce was hired in the next spring, Nunn was a major focus. He was the second best player in the state. He was a member of Team USA in the FIBA U17 World Championships. As things boiled down in August, Nunn had a top five of Illinois, Marquette, Memphis, Ohio State and UCLA -- with official visits mapped out into October.
In early September, Groce and his staff conducted an in-home visit with Nunn and his family. It reportedly lasted five and a half hours, and their detailed plan and pitch came off very impressive. Marquette head coach Buzz Williams also stopped in for an in-home visit that week. A week later, Nunn went down to Champaign for his first scheduled official visit. He didn't need another one, as he committed right after it concluded.
Nunn gave Groce his first big splash. One that got people's attention. The Illini were getting a proven winner from the most prestigious high school program in the state. They were getting a player that competed at a national level for Team USA. Nunn had the goods. He was athletic. He could drive it. He could shoot it. He was tough. He could defend. This was a cornerstone addition.
Nunn was a scorer. He averaged 15.5 points per game as a junior. He was a career 37.9 percent three-point shooter. He rebounded it well for a guard too, as he racked up five rebounds per game in 2015-16. He could be the best player on the court on a given night. But he struggled with consistency in the form of production, effort and focus. And he didn't have the necessary buy-in at the defensive end.
But worst of all, Nunn was dismissed from the team in May 2016 after pleading guilty to a battery charge for striking a woman. A sad ending and major disappointment.
Malcolm Hill - Belleville East (Ill.) SF
4-star & No. 72 overall in the Scout.com rankings
Hill was a holdover from Weber's staff. He committed to the Illini in Sept. 2011, and Jay Price was the first coach to recruit him to Illinois. Hill was a priority target for the Illini, who sent three coaches to see him the week before he committed. Hill chose Illinois over Missouri and Xavier, but he had much more widespread interest. He took visits to Michigan and Ohio State that summer, and Indiana and Wisconsin were in on him as well.
Groce called Hill the day after he was hired in March 2012. Hill had just finished up a season in which he averaged 21.3 points and 9.6 rebounds per game on his way to being selected first-team All-State by the Associated Press. The 6-foot-5 guard went up to Champaign that next week to meet Groce and the coaching staff.
"I just remember we went out to eat with my mom and dad. I asked him, 'do I still have a scholarship here', and he asked me 'do I want two of 'em'," Hill said on Tuesday. "So that kinda showed me how much that he really thought of me as a basketball player and as a person."
"I was in the whole time, in my mind."
Hill self-assessed himself as a slasher in the summer before his junior year. He was a guy who made plays off the bounce going to the basket. He drew contact. And he had a nice mid-range game. Hill needed work on his range beyond the three-point line. But he knew how to score. He averaged 25.3 points per game as a senior in high school. And that came after having major surgery in the summer before that year to remove one of his ribs to prevent blood clotting.
Illinois got one of the most productive four-year players the program has seen. Hill will pass Brian Cook for fourth on the all-time scoring list. He has a shot at catching program icon Dee Brown for third. Hill isn't that 'slasher' due to a lack of quick-twitch athleticism, but his mid-range game is clinical. He can get into the lane. And he consistently fills up the stat sheet. He's the only major-conference player this season to lead his team in total points, rebounds, assists and steals.
He's improved defensively, although explosive players can hurt him. He is a capable three-point shooter, but he needed to be more consistent for next-level purposes. That being said, he's shouldered a huge amount of weight during an era that hasn't been easy on the star player. But he's been that guy -- working hard on the basketball court and embodying everything that the program wants to represent off of it.
Maverick Morgan - Springboro (Ohio) C
3-star in the Scout.com rankings
Morgan was a player already on Groce and Dustin Ford's radar back at Ohio. The 6-foot-10 big man grew up a Buckeyes fan, and while Ohio State showed some interest, they never ended up offering him a scholarship. Instead, Illinois was in the mix with the likes of Dayton, Minnesota, Vanderbilt, Wisconsin and Xavier.
The Illini hosted Morgan on a campus visit in June 2012. He was planning on visiting Minnesota and Wisconsin in the same week. But instead, Morgan made his commitment public a day after visiting Champaign. He liked the fact that he had familiarity with the coaching staff and that he would get an opportunity to compete in the Big Ten.
Morgan was Groce's first addition to the class after keeping Hill on board. This addition filled an area of need on the roster. The Illini knew they were getting a big man that was offensively skilled. He could score with his back to the basket or with a 15-foot jumper. And a major scout described him as an 'excellent' area rebounder. But his AAU coach wasn't shy in calling him the "softest, biggest 6'10" kid we know" -- saying he needed to play more aggressive and physical.
After two years in the books, Morgan looked completely outmatched at the Big Ten level. He played soft. He didn't rebound. He had more fouls than field goals by a significant margin. But then something clicked during his junior season, especially after Mike Thorne Jr. went down. Morgan put points on the board in Big Ten play, and he had 21 and 10 at Maryland against a one-and-done big man in Diamond Stone. He finished the year with 8.3 points per game and shot 56.4 percent from the field.
As a senior, Morgan has been one of the most consistent players on the team. He's scored in double figures in 11 of the 17 Big Ten games. He went from being nothing significant to drawing double teams. Morgan isn't a very good rebounder on most nights. He's not athletic. He doesn't play physical. But he's turned out to be a very solid Big Ten big man. And that's a whole lot more than anyone expected halfway through his collegiate career.
Jaylon Tate - Simeon (Ill.) PG
3-star in the Scout.com rankings
Illinois needed a point guard. And as potential options got removed from the deck, there was a push for Groce to get Tate. Nunn made it known that he wanted to play with Tate, who was his high school teammate. Simeon head coach Robert Smith campaigned for Illinois to take Tate, and publicly said that establishing that Illinois-Simeon connection would help the program in the future.
As a sophomore in high school, Tate was a top-100 player at De La Salle. After that season, he had an offer from Northwestern along with interest from Illinois, Purdue, Ohio State, Xavier and others. But that landscape changed a year and a half later. Tate had already taken an official visit to Ohio. And in early October 2012, he committed to Illinois.
Everyone knew Tate wasn't going to be a star. But even as his ranking slipped as his high school career went on, he was deemed as a decent addition for the Illini. He came from a winning program. He had established chemistry with Nunn. He was a capable passer. And the move made Smith happy at Simeon, which figured to be a chip Illinois could use in their favor in the future.
Tate never obtained a jump shot. And while he could pass, teams didn't need to guard him. He started 15 games as a junior and averaged 1.8 points per game -- shooting 36.7 percent and 18.2 percent from three. On his career, he is 6-of-57 (10.5 percent) from behind the three-point line. He's not a high-major player.
As for the Simeon boost, adding Tate with Nunn didn't move the needle at all with Jabari Parker. But Smith had a pair of promising youngsters coming up in D.J. Williams and Ben Coupet. Williams committed early to Illinois, but he looks like he could very well be on the way out without much to show for his time in Champaign. And Coupet didn't develop to be the kind of prospect that was assumed. He ended up at UNLV.
Austin Colbert - Gill St. Bernard's (N.J.) PF
3-star in the Scout.com rankings
Illinois was named in the final three for Colbert along with Miami and Seton Hall heading into the fall. Colbert took an official visit to Champaign on Sept. 28 and he went to Seton Hall for an official visit in October. But then Villanova appeared on the scene as a wildcard after being interested in the past. The Wildcats offered him a scholarship in late October and hosted him on his final official visit in early November.
With a decision not far off, many experts tabbed Villanova as the favorite to land him. The last visit gets it done in many cases. But just two days before National Signing Day, Colbert committed to Illinois in a televised announcement.
Colbert gave the Illini a long, mobile frontcourt player at 6-foot-9 with considerable upside. He could run the floor. He could rebound and block some shots. The book on him was that he needed to get stronger and play hard more consistently. But some saw him as a top-100 guy because of his positive attributes. And Colbert said part of the reason he picked Illinois was because he knew Groce would push him every day in practice.
Colbert was an inconsistent performer in practice, and thus, he didn't see many minutes as a freshman or for most of his sophomore season. He showed some flashes down the stretch of Big Ten play in his second year with his energy and rebounding. But after the season, he announced that he was transferring out of the program. Was he pushed out? Probably.
Colbert ended up at Old Dominion, and he sat out all of last season due to transfer rules. He then announced last spring that he was transferring to Hampton, but he is not on their roster.
Nationally: 20th overall
Big Ten: 3rd overall
The Main Miss
A prime point guard
Groce ended up with Tate. But he and his staff shot much higher. Unfortunately, this was the start of a stretch defined by missing painfully close on top-notch point guards.
Tyler Ennis - Syracuse
A five-star point guard and AAU teammate of Andrew Wiggins, Ennis was pursued heavily by the Illini during that first summer after Groce was hired. Illinois ended up being in his top three, along with Syracuse and Louisville. Ennis was quoted in July as saying the Illini are "not favorites, but they're who keeps in touch the most". The hard lesson of learning who you can and cannot get.
Ennis grew up as a Syracuse fan. As a kid, he told his dad that's where he wanted to play. And in August 2012, he committed to the Orange. Ennis went on to average 12.9 points and 5.5 assists per game as a freshman. After that, he was a first-round selection in the NBA draft by the Phoenix Suns.
Demetrius Jackson - Notre Dame
Probably the one that hurt the most. Illinois invested a lot in Jackson, despite being in a battle with his hometown team. The Illini hosted him for an official visit at the end of August. They brought Hill to campus to help with the sell. Jackson took pictures of himself wearing the No. 11 Dee Brown Illini jersey. But in September, Jackson took his official visit to Notre Dame. And he committed to the Irish the week afterwards.
Jackson was a McDonald's All-American and played three seasons in South Bend. He helped lead the Irish to back-to-back Elite Eight appearances. And as a junior, he averaged 15.8 points and 4.7 assists. Jackson decided to forego his senior season and he was drafted in the second round by the Boston Celtics last summer.
Xavier Rathan-Mayes - Florida State
Like Ennis, Rathan-Mayes was another Canadian native that was squarely on Illinois' point guard radar in this class. The Illini made it into the final three with Florida State and UCONN. Rathan-Mayes took an official visit to Champaign in late September. He tweeted at Deron Williams on the visit. But on Oct. 13, he committed to the Seminoles.
Rathan-Mayes had to sit out his first year at Florida State after being ruled academically ineligible. But the next season, he tore it up with a team-high 14.9 points and 4.3 assists per game. He put 35 on North Carolina that year, and scored 30 against them the next year. As a junior, he is currently averaging 10.5 points and 4.8 assists.
London Perrantes - Virginia
Jackson and Rathan-Mayes were bigger priorities, but Illinois was also in the top four for Perrantes. They were in line to get an official visit in September, but Perrantes' first official was to Virginia. And that was his last one as well.
Perrantes has been a four-year starter for Tony Bennett in Charlottesville. The Los Angeles product has averaged 8.7 points and 4.2 assists on his career. This season, he is averaging 12.4 points per game. And he is a career 41.1 percent three-point shooter. He hit six threes in the Elite Eight against Syracuse last season.