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Illinois basketball's long, sorry history of recruiting misses

Local recruits keep spurning the Illini, and so far there's nothing John Groce has been able to do about it.

Bradley Leeb-USA TODAY Sports

Jalen Brunson didn't need to rub it in this time around to instill the same creeping feeling of dread and irrelevance around Champaign-Urbana that now seems like an annual rite of passage. The five-star point guard sat at a table on the campus of his north suburban Chicago high school on Wednesday and unzipped a hoodie to reveal a white Villanova t-shirt. Illini basketball had come in second once again for the type of program-changing recruit the program needs so desperately.

To their credit, Illinois basketball fans didn't seem to direct much anger or hostility at Brunson for his decision. You can't kill what's already dead, and the spirit of Illini fans was broken a long time ago.

Brunson is simply the latest in a long-line talented of local prospects to deem Illinois their second choice. It's become the thing that defines the program more than anything else since Deron Williams, Dee Brown and Luther Head fueled a trip to the national championship game back in 2005.

The roots of Illinois basketball's issues go back to the months following what was only Illinois' second loss of the season against a loaded North Carolina team in the title game. That's when five-star Chicago point guard Sherron Collins chose Kansas over the Illini and when Indianapolis shooting guard Eric Gordon gave a verbal commitment to Bruce Weber.

There was a brief period of hope around this time that such a special season could lead to a rejuvenated program; a notion among nationally-touted local players that going to Illinois was every bit as legitimate as heading to one of the blue-bloods. Gordon played for the same AAU team as Chicago point guard Derrick Rose, and word was he was trying to convince him to come to Champaign. Rose visited Illinois, but the false hope of a packaged deal crashed and burned quickly once Indiana axed Mike Davis and hired Kelvin Sampson.

Gordon never re-opened his commitment, but he did change his mind. He went with the hometown Hoosiers, a school just 45 minutes away from where he grew up, after Sampson hired a family friend as an assistant. Sampson was already facing scrutiny from the NCAA for impermissible phone calls at the time, and the perception of a dirty recruitment only made things worse for Illinois. Gordon's deflection to the Hoosiers has been called one college basketball's most painful decommitments ever, and the string of recruiting misses that followed it have only added salt to the wound.

For as much as Gordon's turn to a conference rival hurt, it'll be hard to ever top what Cliff Alexander did to Illinois. Alexander, ranked No. 2 overall in ESPN's class of 2014, spent months in the runup to his decision playing up the chances of every school among his finalists on Twitter. When he reached for and picked up the Illinois hat on the table, the Illini finally thought they had reeled in the sort of big fish that had been consistently getting away.

It was a fakeout that Alexander's friends had put him up to, the sort of thing that only a teenager would do to get laughs without realizing the ramifications of the gesture. Alexander put down that Illini cap and put it on a Kansas one, sending Champaign from euphoria to disbelief in two short seconds.

There's so many more examples. Jon Scheyer was coached by Weber's brother at north suburban Glenbrook North but still chose Duke over Illinois. Julian Wright from south suburban Homewood-Flossmoor picked Kansas, too. Quentin Snider, a point guard from Louisville, verbally committed to Illinois before changing his mind and going with his Rick Pitino-coached hometown team.

From Jamar Smith's drunk driving escapades to Jereme Richmond's single troubled season in Champaign to touted transfers that flamed out like Alex Legion, Illinois basketball could not seem to catch a break. Talk to people around the state and you'll hear that John Groce, now entering his third season, has the program moving in the right direction. Unfortunately, after missing the tournament four times in the last seven seasons and failing to secure the likes of Alexander, Brunson and Snider, few are going to believe the positive momentum is tangible until it translates to results.

Perhaps Illinois' biggest problem at the moment is the fact that it struggles to even reach the tournament. Brunson was only nine years old when Dee and Deron nearly went undefeated, and the inability to capitalize on that run has left the program in a position of vulnerability. Until Groce can start making the tournament consistently, it's a stretch to expect players as talented as Brunson to choose the Illini.

There's hope left to be sold to Illinois fans, because there's always hope. The team should make the NCAA Tournament this season, led by senior Rayvonte Rice and promising sophomores Kendrick Nunn and Malcolm Hill. That Groce was even able to get in the mix for Brunson is something of an accomplishment, considering the Illini weren't even on his radar at the beginning of the year.

There's also a couple more big fish still out there in the class of 2015 that Illinois is in the mix for. It starts with Dallas point guard Jawun Evans, whose crystal ball from 247 Sports gives Illinois a 75 percent chance to land him. Evans could even be a packaged deal with Elijah Thomas, a 6'9 Texas-bred power forward currently ranked No. 28 overall by ESPN. They already have two local top 100 prospects in the mix with Aaron Jordan and D.J. Williams.

Illinois likely wasn't going to pull of Evans and Thomas if Brunson committed, so there's a chance this story could still have a silver lining. Until it actually happens, though, it's tough for Illinois fans to get too excited. They know how this story typically plays out.