For far too long the University of Illinois basketball coaching staff chased with gusto after big-time high school point guards. Despite seeming to do things right in the pursuit, they were constantly left empty-handed on signing day.
Demetrius Jackson picked Notre Dame, played three seasons for the Irish and now draws a paycheck from the Boston Celtics. Jalen Brunson picked Villanova and earned a starting spot as a freshman while helping the Wildcats win the national championship.
Jawun Evans picked Oklahoma State, missed the last nine games of his debut season with an injury and still was named Big 12 Freshman of the Year.
Quintin Snider committed to the Illini, but on signing day decided to stay in his hometown, signing with Louisville. He’s the top returning scorer this season for the Cardinals.
All of this heartache contributed mightily to an Illini team that had to piece and patch it together with a collection of emergency point guard solutions that included Jaylon Tate, Ahmad Starks and Khalid Lewis. That Illinois has missed the NCAA Tournament for three straight seasons can be traced in large part to operating without an elite-level point guard to run John Groce’s offense.
Finally, that trend is turning. Te’jon Lucas, a true point guard from Milwaukee, will be a freshman this fall. And Tracy Abrams, a sixth-year senior who fans may not recognize after two seasons of injury-induced inactivity, will be the experienced bridge to a new era.
On Sunday, Groce and his staff received a much-needed boost when point guard Trent Frazier from Florida committed after an official visit during which the Illini pulled out all the stops to make him and his family feel welcome. He quickly cancelled a visit to Georgia.
Frazier said the weekend represented “the best two days of my life and I made a decision and committed to a place I really wanted to be.”
The red carpet treatment included the first measurable impact of having Dee Brown on Groce’s staff. A fellow point guard and Illini legend, Brown seemed to hit it off brilliantly with Frazier.
A lot of credit must to go assistant coach Dustin Ford, who put in the leg work in Florida. And don’t forget Darren Hertz, the special assistant to the head coach, who during nearly 20 years at the University of Florida had plenty of contacts in the state.
The visit with Illini football coach Lovie Smith on Saturday didn’t hurt, but that was more for Frazier’s dad, Rod, a huge Chicago Bears and Lovie Smith fan.
The bonding with the current team, the one-on-one game with Malcolm Hill, a visit with AD Josh Whitman and the tour of the campus were all part of the full-court press but the truth is, Frazier seemed likely to commit to Illinois before his flight ever touched down.
Losing Jordan Goodwin to St. Louis University was a disappointment, but the sting is eased by the commitment from Frazier and the promise of another to come.
Groce has commitments from four players and has two open scholarships for the Class of 2017, although using just one and banking the other for 2018 makes sense in creating class balance.
That said, if the right players wanted to jump aboard now, Groce might have a hard time saying no. Keep an eye on another Floridian, 6-9 Mayan Kiir from Bradenton.
It will be interesting to see how Groce uses Lucas and Frazier together. The 2005 Illini team, which played for the national title, proved there’s no such thing as having too many point guards. Dee Brown and Deron Williams played beautifully together and the ball-sharing that can come from two unselfish guards can produce killer results.
There’s only six weeks until the official start of Illinois’ fall practice schedule and there should be a good deal of excitement building within the program.