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For John Groce, The Narrative Begins to Change

The Illini have landed their first big-name recruit during the Groce era, and the third-year head coach may be just getting started.

Bradley Leeb-USA TODAY Sports

For a long, sad, depressing time, the narrative about Illinois basketball has been the same.

Illinois can't hit on big-time recruits, they said. Illinois can't get the in-state phenoms, they said.

Those words have rung through Illini fans' heads for years now. Through the Bruce Weber era and into the tenure of John Groce, who has brought hope but also uncertainty as he enters his third year at the helm of a basketball program starving for recognition on a national level.

First, there was Cliff Alexander. The five-star phenom who teased Illini fans with the "Cap Fake-Out Heard 'Round The World." Cliff was going to be the guy who put the Illini on the map. The one-and-done big man who — with the right pieces around him — could take them to the promised land.

Then, there was Jalen Brunson. The in-state spark plug who shot up rankings like a rocket and entered the Illini's radar as the point guard who could bring stability to the program not seen since the days of Dee Brown & Co.

There have been others, but Alexander and Brunson are the two most recognizable examples of recruits who the Illini missed on, and who kept some Illini fans for being completely sold on Groce's ability to build this program into a regular national — let alone Big Ten — contender.

The commitment of Jalen Coleman on Tuesday could be the beginning of the end to that skepticism.

Groce has long shown signs of being able to reel in the big fish — coming just short time and time again. Illini fans have been starving for signs of optimism for years now. While being teased by the likes of Alexander, Brunson and others, it has been clear that Groce has the wherewithal to bring this program to another level. He just needed one prospect to set off the avalanche.

In Coleman, he may have found the trigger.

Coleman isn't the game-changer Alexander would have been. He isn't the type of player that boosts a program from tournament qualifier to Final Four contender. Very few are. But what Coleman represents is the understanding that Groce and the Illini are to be taken seriously in the world of recruiting. What's more, he signals to other recruits that Champaign is a place in which you can be seen, be heard, and make some serious noise.

As you probably know, Groce isn't done. The likes of Jawun Evans and Elijah Thomas are out there to be had. There's also Carlton Bragg and 2016's Jayson Tatum, whom the Illini have treaded the shallow end of the pool with, even if they're not ready to dive in head first just yet.

There's still work to be done, for sure. Groce is assembling a class for 2015 that — depending on what happens during the rest of the recruitment period — is very likely to rank within the top 15-20 in the country and could quite possibly rank in the top 10. But regardless of what happens with the aforementioned recruits, a signal has been shot.

The waterfall is just opening up. Watch out, Big Ten. John Groce is here and he means business.