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Don’t be too bummed, Illini Nation

Updated: December 17, 2013 6:05AM

Once again, Illinois is the bridesmaid, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. In fact, it’s more of an accomplishment than most realize.

When Cliff Alexander picked up an Illinois cap Friday afternoon at Curie, a legion of fans thought Illini coach John Groce had pulled it off. But seconds later it became a “Cliffmas” nightmare when Alexander dropped the Illinois cap and picked up a Kansas cap.

“I watched their game at the United Center the other night, and they’re a very exciting team,” Alexander said. “They’re a fun team to watch, and I like how they play. [Kansas coach Bill Self] has a record for getting guys ready to play at the next level, in the NBA, and that’s where I want to be.”

Groce lost to Self, the gold standard of college recruiting, at least when it comes to Chicago. Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski is seemingly able to pick and choose which players he wants, especially in Chicago: Jon Scheyer, Jabari Parker and now Jahlil Okafor. Krzyzewski didn’t recruit Derrick Rose or Alexander. He generally stays out of the messiest recruitments.

The messy ones are right in Self’s wheelhouse. No one is better at winning the tough Chicago Public League recruiting battles. He is almost always a step ahead.

“Bill Self, he’s the absolute superstar in all facets,” recruiting analyst Joe Henricksen said. “There are some people that will tell you behind the scenes they don’t even care for Coach K and will go to Duke for the brand. I don’t think there is anyone that won’t say Bill Self is one of the coolest guys out there. Combine the cool factor with the Kansas history and tradition, and it’s a superstar package.”

Two years ago, most of the Chicago basketball community didn’t have a clue who Groce was. This year, he went toe-to-toe with Self and nearly won. That’s a moral ­victory for Illinois, even if it isn’t the victory the fan base wanted.

“I know Illinois fans feel snakebitten when it comes to these recruitments,” Henricksen said. “But I really believe it is a new day in recruiting for Illinois with this staff. They get it, they relate, they grind, they have staying power in recruiting.”

Illinois’ basketball program isn’t at the level of Duke’s or Kansas’. It will take several decades of on-court success to change that. There isn’t anything Groce and his staff can do about that.

“The blue bloods pick and choose who they want in Chicago,” Henricksen said. “It is always a battle. Illinois wants to be in these recruitments, but they are hard. You are never going to win one ­unless you are in it.”

As an assistant, Groce brought Mike Conley and Greg Oden to Ohio State. That kind of success doesn’t happen overnight, or by accident.

“Regardless of what happened today, John Groce has changed the culture at Illinois,” national recruiting analyst Evan Daniels said. “There is no doubt in my mind they are going to be successful. I know the Illinois fans are [hacked] off today. But Groce is smart and he relates well with these kids. He’s going to do a ­tremendous job.”


Twitter: @michaelsobrien

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