Illini Football Prepares for Play as Basketball Program Recruits
By Rob McColley
As the Illini football team hopes for a third consecutive win in Chicago on Saturday, Illini basketball fans are cheering news of some impressive new recruits.
On the football front, last Saturday’s surprise win over Cincinnati raised expectations for the Fighting Illini, as they prepare for Saturday’s “Chicago Homecoming” game against Washington at Soldier Field.
Jason Heggemeyer of the Illini ticket office reported that tickets sales were up, with about 5,000 sold over the past week as of Thursday. He was expecting sales to remain strong up to game time.
“Chicago is usually a town that responds to people that win,” Heggemeyer said. “They like winners.”
But Illini basketball is making its own news in the recruiting category.
Over Labor Day weekend, Illini basketball got a verbal commitment from Leron Black, a small forward from Memphis. On Thursday night, Louisville Ballard High School point guard Quentin Snider announced that he would choose the Illini, and two hours later Chicago Curie power forward Cliff Alexander tweeted that he plans to make an official visit to Illinois on Oct. 26.
Black, Snider and Alexander are all rated among the top 50 college basketball prospects in the country.
Snider's announcement made it clear that Illini coach John Groce has changed the perception of the program.
“To be honest, I thought Big Ten basketball was slow,” said Snider. “But the way I seen it, from (game) clips from Illinois, they’re trying to get up and down.”
Snider also praised Coach Groce as trustworthy and “a real good guy,”a perception he said was backed up by other Illini players.
“He’s a very humble guy,” said Snider of Groce. “He always talked about the chip on his shoulder, and that’s what I have is a chip on my shoulder.”
Until these recruits sign official Letters of Intent in November, NCAA rules prohibit Illini staff from speaking about them. But Champaign Centennial's Michael Finke -- a fellow 2014 commit -- had no such restriction, as he discussed the excitement he sees building around Coach Groce.
“I mean top 50 recruits and Leron (Black) and Quentin (Snider),” Finke said. “And people are actually talking about going after the top guys like Cliff (Alexander). There’s a lot of buzz around Illinois and it’s fun to be a part of it.”
Finke said he is already spending a lot of time at the Ubben practice facility, working with his future teammates.
“Me being in Champaign, I’m able to be around it so much," said Finke. "It’s so convenient and I’m taking advantage of it."
Nobody's sure where all the scholarships will come from for the expected wave of recruits, but John Groce assured the media last Friday that “we can count,” meaning he is aware that he may have more willing participants than the maximum of 13 allowed by the NCAA.
Coach John Groce, Michael Finke, and even more basketball recruits will be at Soldier Field in Chicago on Saturday to cheer on their football counterparts. The Chicago Homecoming game marks the Illini’s first Soldier Field appearance since 1994. The 2-0 Illini will play the 19th-ranked 1-0 Washington Huskies. Game time is 5 PM.