Kendrick Nunn, recruiting change culture of Illinois basketball
Following a disappointing 2011-12 season from the Illinois basketball team, which prevented it from receiving an invitation to the Big Dance and led to Bruce Weber receiving the pink slip, it was all about rejection for a once-proud program.
First, athletic director Mike Thomas was unable to lure the biggest fishes in the coaching sea in Brad Stevens and Shaka Smart — leading to a collective grumble from the Illini fan base.
Questions arose of whether the Illinois brand had lost its shine after serving as a top-10 program for its consistency in the early- and mid-2000s.
Illini supporters continued to worry after in-state high school superstar Jabari Parker, who is rated the No. 1 overall recruit in the 2013 class by Scout.com, left Illinois off his list of 10 possible destinations in July. Many Illini fans saw it as a slap in the face as Parker included DePaul, a team that hasn’t sniffed the NCAA tournament since 2004. Others began to believe it was a sign of the times, as high school recruits are too young to remember the 2004-05 Illini squad — led by Dee Brown and Deron Williams — that nearly cut down the nets that season.
Nevertheless, there was an eerie feeling in Champaign that Illinois basketball was not the same. For the most part, fans approved the hiring of head coach John Groce, who impressed many with his ability to lead Ohio to the Sweet 16 last season. It was obvious that Groce possessed the passion and charisma that the Illini faithful desired, but how fast could he turn around a program on life support?
Illinois got its answer last Saturday when highly touted shooting guard Kendrick Nunn pledged his commitment to Groce and the program. Nunn, a member of the under-17 U.S. national team, was rated a four-star recruit by Scout.com and listed as the 54th best player in the 2013 class. Nunn made his commitment on his official visit and publicly announced his decision on Twitter: “@JohnGroce I Need That Scholarship..My State. My School #KendricksKingdom.”
With his athleticism and 3-point stroke, Nunn is a huge addition for Groce and his staff, also helping the surging first-year recruiting class for the head coach. Groce has already gotten the commitment of 6-foot-5 shooting guard Malcom Hill, who was rated as a four-star recruit and named the 65th best player in the class. In addition, Nunn’s father has hinted that more commitments are coming.
Melvin Nunn has reportedly said that with his son’s decision, point guard Demetrius Jackson is likely heading to Illinois. Jackson was rated as a five-star recruit, ranking as the 23rd best player in the class.
Jackson visited Illinois on Aug. 31, and if he follows Nunn, he would join Brown and Meyers Leonard as the only five-star recruits to sign with Illinois since 2002.
Jackson has offers from Kansas, Notre Dame, Michigan State, Louisville and others.
The 6-foot-1 point guard has a nice shot and can explode above the rim with his trampoline-caliber hops. If Jackson indeed makes his way to Champaign next fall, the impact for the Illinois program cannot be overstated.
Last year, according to Scout.com, rival Indiana landed three four-star recruits, posting the sixth best class in 2012. With the addition of Jackson to Nunn and Hill, Groce could have himself a top-five recruiting class in his first season.
Forget a rebuilding project. If Groce pulls this off, the Illini will be immediate contenders in the Big Ten. With the expected return of Tracy Abrams, Mike Shaw, Myke Henry and Nnanna Egwu, in addition to transfer Rayvonte Rice getting his first chance to prove his worth, and a top-five freshman class, the Illini will be well on their way back to the top of the conference.
Illinois basketball has been through its share of tough times — exemplified by its 2-12 finish last season. But Groce has the tide quickly changing.
Nunn’s commitment is just the beginning. Let the dominos fall.
_Derek is a senior in Media. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @feeldapaign._