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Illinois basketball coach John Groce’s first class is a winner

JaylTate left Kendrick Nunn right sign their University Illinois scholarships SimeHigh School Chicago Ill. Wednesday November 14 2012. | Andrew

Jaylon Tate, left, and Kendrick Nunn, right, sign their University of Illinois scholarships at Simeon High School in Chicago, Ill., on Wednesday, November 14, 2012. | Andrew A. Nelles~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: December 19, 2012 12:24PM

When John Groce was hired last spring, there was some grumbling heard around the state, particularly in some Chicago-area prep pockets.

The Illinois coach’s first recruiting haul ought to quiet the skeptics. The five-player recruiting class Groce unveiled Wednesday looks like an all-around winner.

With two big men, athletic 6-9 forward Austin Colbert and 6-10, 240-pound true center Maverick Morgan; 6-5 wing Malcolm Hill; 6-3 guard Kendrick Nunn; and 6-2 point guard Jaylon Tate, the quintet covers all five positions.

With two players from state-champion powerhouse Simeon (Nunn and Tate) and one from Downstate Belleville East (Hill) joined by Morgan, from Ohio, and Colbert, from New Jersey, it’s a class that shows Groce wants to work Illinois but won’t hesitate to recruit players wherever he finds them.

And with three four-star recruits (Colbert, Hill and Nunn) and two three-star prospects (Morgan and Tate), Groce has landed a class ranked 10th in the nation by Rivals. Scout ranked the class 22nd. It’s 23rd in ESPN’s ranking.

It’s an encouraging start for a staff that’s only been on the job seven months.

‘‘I couldn’t be more pleased,’’ said Groce, who expects this highly regarded inaugural class to set the table for continued recruiting success. ‘‘It’s critical. They’ll always have a special place in my heart. At this point, you have to say, ‘I believe in the vision’ without as much as evidence as subsequent classes. [Future recruits say,] ‘There must be something special going on there.’ It starts to fall like dominoes. That’s why the first one is so critical. It’s a tremendous foundation for us.’’

Colbert, who committed on Monday, is a big believer in Groce, assistant coach Dustin Ford and their uptempo preaching and teaching.

Calling Illinois ‘‘a great fit,’’ Colbert told, ‘‘I really trust what coach Groce and coach Ford tell me, and how they are going to use me in their system. Coach Groce really does a good job of using his 4 man.

‘‘He really works with them and develops them to play. I feel like he’s going develop me into a better player and push me every day in practice.’’

Colbert, from Gladstone (N.J.) Gill St. Bernard’s, chose Illinois over Villanova, Miami (Fla.), and Seton Hall, among others.

In some ways, it’s ironic that Groce landed two players from Simeon, whose coach, Robert Smith, reportedly was among those not thrilled with the hiring of Groce. It appears the initial doubts about Groce were based on unfamiliarity, and the coach has energetically defused early reluctance by getting to know people and showing them his vision.

‘‘Honestly, just by being myself,’’ Groce said of winning over coaches like Smith. ‘‘I feel his passion for what he’s doing, and I think he has a great feel for the passion we have. To be honest with you, it wasn’t that big a deal.’’

And Groce’s first recruiting class answers many questions about how he’s going to work out as a recruiter.

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