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Sunday, April 14, 2013

Illinois basketball: Illini program continues to gain momentum

On March 24th, the Illinois Fighting Illini basketball program suffered a gut-wrenching defeat to cap off an amazing 12 or so months for the program.  It might sound strange to use the terms "cap off" and "amazing" to describe a loss, but I meant it. I also meant gut-wrenching, but I won't rehash the end of that game. The Illini's inspired effort to nearly knock off 2-seed Miami in the round of 32 of the NCAA Tournament was something that left fans of the orange and blue as proud as they've been in years.

That loss ended an up and down season that was much more the former than the latter. And that's what made the 2012-13 Illini different from past years. Sure there were hard times. And one point in the Big Ten season it looked like the Illini might never win again. But then they did. Quite a bit. Against really good teams.

All together, the Illini went 12-1 in non-conference season, 8-10 in an extremely tough Big Ten season, and won a game in the Big Ten tournament to earn their bid to the dance. They incurred microcosm of their season in their round of 64 game against Colorado and then advanced to that thrilling if crushing game against Miami.

After the game, in a very emotional Illinois locker room, head coach John Groce passionately applauded his team's effort, thanked his seniors for their leadership, and told his underclassmen to be hungrier than ever to build on the foundation laid this season.

About three weeks later, Groce and his staff have already begun.

Early Saturday morning, Aaron Cosby, a combo-guard transferring from Seton Hall, announced his commitment to Illinois after his weekend visit. He canceled an upcoming visit to Mizzou, the runner-up for his services.

Transfer rules require Cosby to sit out the 2013-14 season. He'll use his redshirt and then have two years of eligibility remaining. Cosby will bring a shooting touch and ball-handling ability to the Illini. A three-star recruit coming out of high school, Cosby may or may not star at Illinois, but he'll certainly provide important depth and minutes. Cosby's commitment is about more than what he'll do on the court in a couple of years. 

Cosby is the fourth out-of-state (including transfers, obviously) commitment John Groce has received since taking charge at Illinois. The previous staff struggled mightily in this area. Groce appears poised to excel in it.

Looking ahead, the Illini are in the final six for 5-star point guard JaQuan Lyle from Indiana. Reports suggest Lyle really likes Illinois and the staff. Getting a recruit out of Indiana was an impossible task for the previous staff. Groce hasn't overcome the hurdle yet, but he may soon.

In-state, the Illini have the attention of top Chicago (and thus state, and thus country) big man recruits Jahlil Okafor and Cliff Alexander. The two frequently tweeted about Illinois during the season. Alexander has already visited Champaign. Some believe Okafor may soon, though that's little more than rumor at this point.

It may be too early for Groce to land a 5-star. I'm not a recruiting insider, and I don't think I'd want to be, but it's clear is that John Groce has the attention of the best players in the state and country. That will pay off before long.

For Groce, it already has. Today Illinois rewarded him for the program's apparent turn-around. Groce received a one-year contract extension and a $200,000 bump in his base salary. The extension ups his annual pay to $1.6 million and runs through 2017-18.

John Groce and the Illini won't win all their games or their recruiting battles. But for the first time in a long time, the losses needn't linger. With the new Illini, there's always a big win just around the corner.

Justin Striebel is a columnist for StlSportsMinute.com, where all things are fair game when it comes to St. Louis sports. You can follow his work here or follow him personally on Twitter (@jstriebel22)