John Groce’s tenure was unfortunately marked by his failure to land a high-profile point guard who could effectively run his offense. I still wince when I hear the names of his former recruiting targets mentioned along with their accolades and the schools that landed them: Demetrius Jackson, Jawun Evans, Quentin Snider, and others.
But what if Groce had gotten his lucky break? What if one of the best point guard recruiting targets to ever consider Illinois had in fact decided to come to Champaign? Class of 2015 point guard recruit Jalen Brunson — who announced Wednesday he will be entering the 2018 NBA Draft — could have breathed life into John Groce’s floundering program and launched the Illini right back into national relevance.
There were obviously considerable barriers to Brunson ever choosing Illinois, and his eventual landing spot, Villanova, offered the opportunity to win immediately while the Illini could not. But this thought experiment assumes that Brunson had bought into John Groce’s offensive vision, and decided to try to make his own legacy at Illinois rather than joining a host of other elite talent at Villanova.
Brunson would have been added to the 2015-16 roster that included juniors Malcolm Hill, Kendrick Nunn, and Maverick Morgan, along with a sophomore Leron Black (pre-injury). In reality, the Illini went 15-19 that season, and even Brunson would have done little to change that result. But the following season returned virtually everyone, and a sophomore Brunson could have elevated the team, which finished 20-15 without him, safely into the tournament.
As a sophomore, Brunson was putting up highlights like these for Villanova:
Jalen Brunson gettin' fancy in this one as @NovaMBB pulls away pic.twitter.com/p1rhexT9CE— CBS Sports (@CBSSports) March 17, 2017
Jalen Brunson going hard to the rack...AND THE FOUL. pic.twitter.com/theU0FUfGU— CBS Sports (@CBSSports) March 18, 2017
John Groce almost certainly could have saved his job had he made the NCAA tournament in the 2016-17 season. New AD Josh Whitman got along well with the incumbent men’s basketball coach, and he was in no rush to relieve Groce of his duties.
With Groce still in charge of the Illini, the alternate version of last season would have likely featured Jalen Brunson continuing to run point while Jeremiah Tilmon and Leron Black anchor the paint. It may not have been enough to make the tournament, but it would have made for much more exciting basketball than the painful first season of Brad Underwood’s tenure.
It’s still impossible to say whether or not this alternate series of events would be preferable to the one we know. Perhaps Brad Underwood has a much higher ceiling than John Groce, and the temporary success brought about at Illinois by Brunson could have prevented the Illini from hiring Underwood when the opportunity arose.
It’s incredible to think about how much influence certain high school seniors wield when deciding which college to attend, and this thought experiment shows just how drastically one high school athlete from Lincolnshire could have impacted the future of Illini basketball had he decided to take a gamble on Illinois back in 2014.