When the Illini were looking for a new coach after firing Bruce Weber, the way people talked about the difficulty of recruiting Chicago made it sound like the new coach would be trying to cure cancer. There were so many reasons I heard about how hard it was to get players out of the city, or that no coach could do so cleanly.
I heard theories ranging from "no white coach will ever be able to get top talent from the Public League" to "any coach that puts ketchup on his hot dog will never land the top Chicago players." Seriously, somebody hit me with that second one. They were joking, but I think deep down they meant it.
As a result to these myths being peddled every where, when it was announced that John Groce was coming to Champaign, there were plenty of people worried about his Chicago bonafides. Never mind the fact that he got D.J. Cooper -- his best player with the Bobcats -- to leave Chicago for freaking Athens, Ohio.
As we've seen since Groce got here, he's doing just fine when it comes to recruiting the city. And he plans to continue doing so.
"I think sometimes [the difficulty of Chicago] gets overdramatized," Groce said at Big Ten media days. "There's a lot of good guys up in Chicago, a lot of good coaches, people. I've enjoyed getting up here. We've been getting up here a lot. That's going to continue.
"We've developed some relationships we've had to work to start from scratch when we first got the job and there are others we've kind of reconnected or continued to establish we already had prior. We'd be foolish not to recruit Chicago. It's 3-million-plus people out of the 13 million in our state. We got to continue to do a good job there."
A good job is exactly what he's been doing, too. Now, Jabari Parker isn't coming to Illinois, but in signing Kendrick Nunn and Jaylon Tate he's seemingly already opened a pipeline to Simeon. Which isn't a bad school to open up a pipeline to considering it's won three straight state championships and has produced players like Derrick Rose.
While Nunn is obviously the biggest prize, Groce also realizes that players like the more unheralded Tate serve a purpose as well. In fact, he's done so well recruiting that Rivals currently has the 2013 Illini class ranked tenth in the nation.
"I think the misnomer is you got to get all of them," Groce said. "No, you got to get the right ones. I think that's important. I feel confident we're going to be able to get our fair share and obviously we're off to a good start."
Groce has also shown that he's smart enough to not fall for that whole "Chicago is the key" narrative. As anybody who has paid attention to Illinois basketball knows, places like Peoria have been just as important to this program as Chicago.
As Groce said, there are still 10 million people in this state that don't live in Chicago. Guys like Malcom Hill.
So even though we've yet to see the Illini play a basketball game this season, and we haven't seen Groce coach an actual game, I'm more optimistic about this program and its future than I've been in years.
We finally have a coach who seems to get it again.