In the past decade, the Illinois Fighting Illini have seemed to be on the outskirts of Chicagoland basketball. Big name recruit after big name recruit brushed aside the prospect of staying in their home state to pursue opportunities elsewhere, be it at a Kentucky, a Kansas or a Duke. Anthony Davis. Jabari Parker. Jahlil Okafor. Cliff Alexander. The list goes on and on. While in later years young high school players from Illinois dreamed of taking the court in orange and blue, the desire has subsided in the place of more successful national programs. This begs the question, is the day of an Illinois team with elite, in-state talent too long gone, and more importantly does playing for the state university even matter?
Apparently, there is still hope.
One of the Illini's best players from last season, Kendrick Nunn, knew he wanted to represent his home state. Raised on the south side of Chicago, Nunn played his high school ball at Simeon with Jabari Parker, fellow Illini teammate Jaylon Tate and future teammate D.J. Williams, winning four straight state titles in the process. When it came time for him to make his college decision, his father made clear the importance of staying home to continue his career.
"It was to the point where nothing else was going to get better than here," said Nunn's father, Melvin, of his son's decision. "There's a lot of history at Illinois to do with it. That's what it's all about. He wants to continue the history. He did it at Simeon and now wants to continue it at the state school and be a part of a national championship at his state school."
Others too, are following suit. Along with Williams in the 2015 recruiting class comes in-state guard Aaron Jordan, a top 100 recruit out of Plainfield East. Jordan too expressed his sentiment for Illinois following his commitment.
"I just felt the time was right; it was Legend's Day at Illinois and all the Flyin' Illini were there, and it just felt right to do it," Jordan said after visiting in January. "I went through the whole process, and at the end of the day, Illinois was the one. It's close to home, I grew up in Illinois. It's home."
The strategy of attracting the best of Illinois is not new to the history of the program. Most of the great players that have worn the Illini uniform have come from within state, be it Kendall Gill, Nick Anderson or Dee Brown. Coach Groce clearly recognizes the importance tapping that potential in order to create a solid, sustainable program. If the Illini want to be able to compete in the Big Ten for a lengthy period going forward, they will need to appeal to and go after the younger generation of ball players in the local region. Illinois has already offered their fourth Simeon player in the Groce tenure with 2016 G Zach Norvell. Rated at #59 in the nation, he represents the best player in the state for his class. While not a top 30 player, this could be another solid get for the Illini.
Illinois has so much to offer in talent, its time Groce figured out how to make them stay home.