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Throwback Thursday: Merry Cliffmas To All, And To All A Good Night

Easily the darkest day in the history of John Groce missing on high-profile recruits

Happy Ayo Day, Illini fans!

With football looking somewhat lifeless, a weary Fighting Illini nation turns its eyes south of Kirby to Brad Underwood’s men’s basketball program. Tonight has the potential to be a huge night for Illini hoops after all the speculation that residual heat from the FBI investigation had profoundly affected Underwood’s ability to close the deal with recruits. Ayo Dosunmu is the home-grown five-star point guard John Groce tried in vain to land for five years, and tonight he will announce his decision between Illinois and Wake Forest.

Of course, Illini fans are no stranger to bizarre twists and turns in recruitment. Whether it be the infamous Eric Gordon flip to Indiana, Jon Scheyer spurning his high school coach’s brother Bruce Weber to go to Duke, the Marcus LoVett standardized test saga, Xavier Simpson deciding between Illinois and Wisconsin and choosing Michigan out of nowhere, or the commitment and decommitment of Jeremiah Tilmon, it’s safe to say fans of the Orange and Blue should expect the unexpected. However, National Signing Day on November 15, 2013 was a horse of a different color.

The day started out promisingly enough, with four-star power forward Leron Black and local center Michael Finke faxing in their signed letters of intent. Of course, everyone knew the class had the potential to go stratospheric with top-five overall recruit Cliff Alexander, a big man out of Chicago’s Curie High, but the sense that he would choose Kansas as so many important Chicago recruits before him had done permeated an anxious Illini nation. Nevertheless, we tuned in to see his announcement, and he picked up the Illinois hat...only to discard it for the Kansas hat. Illinois fans reacted thusly:

Alexander had made himself Public Enemy Number 1 in the eyes of Illini fans, but I would argue that a more painful blow was dealt to the class when the fourth big component faxed his letter of intent. Top-30 recruit Quentin Snider was the lead guard John Groce dreamed of having in Orange and Blue, and he’d been committed to Illinois since September. As the hours ticked by without his letter of intent faxed in, anxiety built until Snider gave Groce a call to let him know that he had indeed faxed it... Louisville.

Thus, the 2014 recruiting class ended up being Leron Black and Finke, who would redshirt his freshman year. There is, however, an epilogue. Alexander played sparingly for Kansas before a family loan against his future earnings was uncovered, leading Bill Self, the man to whom he’d chosen to entrust his future, to throw him under the bus and essentially disown him. Once seen as a top-five NBA draft pick, Alexander’s pro career has amounted to a cup of coffee with Portland and a couple years bouncing around the D-League, which is apparently now the G-League.

Snider, on the other hand, received significant playing time as a freshman for the Cardinals, becoming instrumental in their run to the Elite Eight, but Louisville was ineligible for the NCAA Tournament during his sophomore year due to the Rick Pitino escorts scandal. Snider now enters his senior year with Pitino having been forced out.

Ayo Dosunmu could, at long last, be the recruit to re-establish Illinois as a destination for Chicago talent. Hold on to your hats, folks.