New Illinois coach John Groce's quest to attract top prospects from the city of Chicago has encountered some unexpected obstacles.
Isaac Chew, the assistant Groce hired six weeks ago to recruit Chicago, bolted this week for a similar job at Marquette, leaving a key void on the Illini staff at a time when it will not be easy to fill it. Making matters worse for Illinois, highly touted class of 2013 point guard Jalen James, formerly of Chicago's Hope Academy, tweeted Wednesday he is opening up his recruitment despite originally committing to the Illini last year.
"I wish Coach Groce And The Illini Staff The Best Of Luck In The Future!" James tweeted.
It's hard to say whether Chew or James is the bigger loss for Illinois, but both were clearly important to Groce's rebuilding efforts.
Chew, who spent the 2011-12 season under Frank Haith at Missouri, is a former Chicago Public League Player of the Year at Wells High School. The hope for Illinois was that he'd replace Jerrance Howard, a well-connected and well-respected assistant who recruited Chicago for Bruce Weber for five years before opting to join Larry Brown at SMU instead of staying at Illinois under Groce.
Chew agonized over the decision to leave Illinois so abruptly, but not even a counter offer from the Illini could prevent him from accepting Marquette coach Buzz Williams' invitation to join his staff.
"It was an emotional decision. It was emotional for me and for my wife and my family," Chew told the Champaign News-Gazette. "Coach Groce is going to do a great job (at Illinois). This had nothing to do with the challenge. I think the world of coach Groce and his staff. I just couldn't pass up this opportunity. That's just the bottom line."
The loss of James was nearly as surprising considering he'd remained committed to Illinois despite the departure of Weber and his staff. James, a 6-foot-2 point guard, transferred to La Lumiere in LaPorte, Ind., this winter and is listed as Rivals.com's No. 89 player in the Class of 2013.
Among the schools who reportedly called James' AAU coach Mike Mullins on Wednesday expressing interest in him are SMU and Marquette, which has to be galling for the Illini. They'll have to keep searching for a point guard of the future and the one they thought they had may land with one of two assistant coaches who got away.