Next Illinois coach will face a massive challenge in Chicago

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Whoever replaces John Groce as Illinois coach will have a huge challenge in recruiting Chicago. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

At his introductory press conference, Illinois’ next basketball coach will stress the importance of recruiting in the Chicago area. He’ll be right. It is important. But so is world peace, and good luck with that.

There’s still a presumption statewide that Illinois should be able to land some of the top talent in the Chicago area. But why? Why does that apply more to the Illini than it does to DePaul and Northwestern? Or to outsiders such as Michigan State, Louisville and Kentucky, for that matter?

The standard answer, based on ancient history, is that Illinois is the state’s flagship school and somehow deserves the best that Chicago has to offer. Once you’re done soaking in that tub of nostalgia, you might want to towel off with some reality.

This isn’t yesteryear, when Illinois regularly landed top talent from Chicago-area high schools — players such as Eddie Johnson (Westinghouse), Kendall Gill (Rich Central), Marcus Liberty (King), Neil Bresnahan (Fenwick), Ken Norman (Crane), Efrem Winters (King), Deon Thomas (Simeon), Nick Anderson (Simeon) and Levi Cobb (Morgan Park), among many others.

Today’s high school stars want to go where they can be seen on TV, where they can play right away, where they can win a lot of games and where they can get work in before heading to the NBA. That’s why Illinois is such a tough sell now and probably why Simeon’s Jabari Parker and Whitney Young’s Jahlil Okafor both went to Duke. Playing time isn’t an issue at Illinois. TV time, victories and the NBA are.

The school hasn’t won regularly over the past decade-plus, which is why the Illini were on national television only four times in the regular season – twice on ESPN2 and twice on ESPNU. It’s a very bad spot to be in when you’re trying to promote your school.

Illinois has been forced to go the route that a lot of middling programs go, telling potential recruits that if they sign on the dotted line, they can help put the school back on the college basketball map. And it has worked at times. Recently fired coach John Groce convinced five-star recruit Jeremiah Tilmon of East St. Louis to sign with the Illini but won’t be around when the center enrolls in the fall.

Tilmon hopes to build his own mountain. Other schools stand on their own mountaintops and tell high school players that they’ll win games from the moment they step on the floor. The photos of recent attendees now in the NBA serve as further proof.

In the past 12 years, only five former Illini have been NBA draft picks: Deron Williams, James Augustine, Luther Head, Dee Brown and Meyers Leonard, with all but Leonard having come from the Illinois team that went to the national championship game in 2005. For what it’s worth, only Head (Manley) and Brown (Proviso East) were from the Chicago area.

The dearth of talent is why finding the right replacement for Groce is so important, no matter how daunting it might seem. Right now, there are more reasons for a star high school player not to go to Illinois than there are for him to go. The first step toward tipping that balance is a good coach, a coach with a name, if possible. The rest of it then has the chance to follow, including the possibility of more players like Tilmon.

Illinois’ inability to recruit the Chicago area isn’t about Chicago Public League coaches feeling ignored and disrespected by previous Illini coaches, a common complaint in the past. Players these days are more likely to listen to their AAU coaches and their AAU teammates than their high school coaches when pondering college options. Thanks to social media and travel teams, these kids are connected to a much bigger world than the players who came before them.

One of the selling points I often hear from Illinois fans is the proximity of the school to Chicago. But Marquette is closer to Chicago, as is Notre Dame, and the University of Wisconsin is about the same distance. If you’re a parent of a player, there’s not a huge difference between driving 2 ½ hours to Champaign and driving 3 hours, 40 minutes to East Lansing, Mich., or four hours to Bloomington, Ind. A car ride is a car ride.

The greatest distance involved here is the many miles between Illinois and excellence.

This is about the quality of the program. It’s about getting to the NCAA Tournament regularly. It’s about a coach being able to walk into a recruit’s home with something tangible to discuss. It’s about finding talent, wherever its source.

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