CHAMPAIGN — In a span of just a few hours on Friday, the Illinois men’s basketball team went from surefire top-10 recruiting class on par with the top programs in the country to a squad that had picked up a pair of good recruits.
While the Fighting Illini fan base expressed several levels of emotion with guard Quentin Snider of Louisville, decommitting from Illinois and signing with his hometown Louisville Cardinals. And, then there was the hat fiasco with Chicago Curie standout Cliff Alexander, who originally grabbed the Illinois hat before dropping it and putting on the Kansas cap.
Both of those situations created a firestorm on internet message boards, but that’s now what caught the eye of Illinois coach John Groce.
So on Saturday, as Groce got the opportunity to introduce his recruiting class of Leron Black, a 6-foot-7 forward out of Memphis, Tenn., and Michael Finke, the 6-9 forward from Champaign Centennial, he also wanted to set the record straight.
The second-year coach questioned a story and headline in a Chicago-based newspaper that basically stated the University of Illinois was “put in its place.”
“I’m going to tell you what place it’s in,’’ said Groce referring to the University of Illinois. “It’s in a great place, that’s what place its in. In the last 20 months, from the time we started March 29, 2012 until now, we have made strides and improvements in a lot of areas. The assistant coaches and the players that we had last year, as well as the ones we have this year, deserve a lot of credit, a lot of credit.
“In fact, darn near all of the credit. They have initiated and ignited a switch that have given us an opportunity to build something special at the University of Illinois.’’
A year ago, the Fighting Illini went 23-13, reaching the third round of the NCAA Tournament. So far this season, Illinois is 3-0 heading into today’s 5 p.m. contest against the Bradley Braves.
But Groce wasn’t just talking about his basketball program.
“The University of Illinois is the 24th-ranked university in the world,’’ he said. “We have five Final Fours. We have a renovation project going on in our arena, that is going to make it one of nicest in the country. We had a group of seniors last year that overachieved at a high level, they bought in and showed extra ordinary level of commitment, passion, unity and integrity about how they do things.
“If anyone wants to know, what place Illinois college hoops is in right now, it’s in a great place. Not a good place, a great place.’’
With that message delivered to state-wide media after Saturday’s football game, Groce immediately changed the topic to his primary focus — his new players.
“Obviously we’re here, first and foremost, to celebrate the addition of two, not only really good players, but great young men and great families to the Illinois basketball family,’’ said Groce about Black and Finke. “They embody in every way, shape or form, what we define as an Illini guy. So we are really thrilled to have them join us.’’
Black, a consensus top-50 recruit, averaged 18.5 points, 10.5 rebounds and 1.7 blocks a year ago at White Station High School in Memphis.
“ Leron’s strength is his versatility,’’ Groce said. “He will be a guy that will be able to play multiple positions — extremely athletic.
“I’m thrilled that we have him. I love the fact that he is really athletic. It allows him to make plays with that motor.’’
Finke, a first-team Class 3A all-stater, averaged 16.6 points and 7.6 rebounds a year ago for the Chargers. In two games against Danville, Finke had 38 points and 16 rebounds for Centennial.
“Michael is a very skilled, a relentless worker and he has a high basketball IQ,’’ Groce said. “He is an exceptional shooter who can stretch the defense with his ability to shoot it from 3-point range.’’
In addition to two signings this past week, Illinois has received a verbal commitment from Chicago Simeon junior guard D.J. Williams for the 2015 season.