Illini basketball not landing Chicago’s top talent, but they don’t have to



We hear the same refrain over and over: “Illini basketball is not landing the top tier talent in Chicago.” Or “they’re not getting the top recruits in their own backyard.” As Illinois is the only program in the entire state that’s been nationally relevant the past 20 years, the onus is always on Champaign when the Chicago area blue-chippers get away.

DePaul is the only other school in the Land of Lincoln that’s been nationally relevant in the past 50 years, but we know what a mess Oliver Purnell has created/has on his hands. When your average attendance is 1,900 fans a home game, you’re just not going to be in the running for the top shelf.

Chris Collins is off to a good start at Northwestern, he has a top area kid in Vic Law. However, one class won’t turn around an entire program that has zero NCAA Tournament history. So we’re back asking why can’t the Illini basketball program close the deal when it comes to the upper echelon?


That same question is also phrased as “why doesn’t the top notch talent stay home?”or “why is local Chicago college basketball so awful when the talent pool here is so deep?” As the fifth most populous state in the country and the nation’s third-largest city, and of course the third largest media market, you would think Illini basketball would be right up there with the blue bloods: Kansas, Duke, North Carolina, Kentucky, UCLA (who all coincidentally wear blue by the way).

But it isn’t, as Dave Wischnowsky of CBS Chicago writes:

the school regularly struggles to keep its top prep stars in state. Last month, Illinois signed only five football players from local high schools, and none of them were highly ranked. Meanwhile, the basketball program has again missed out on the state’s biggest stars in Chicagoans Jahlil Okafor and Cliff Alexander, who will head to Duke and Kansas, respectively, and follow in the footsteps of Jabari Parker, Anthony Davis and Derrick Rose, other recent standouts who left Illinois to play on other states’ courts.

When it comes to recruiting, state pride has long been a dilemma for Illinois


Another plus for the Illini, and to the Chicago schools if they could ever be relevant enough to capitalize on it, is the McDonald’s All-American game, which will be in Chicago for the fourth year in a row. It tips Wednesday night. The premier preps All-Star game showcase won’t be leaving Chi-City anytime soon, and it should be more advantageous for local schools than it is.

All that local publicity, if managed correctly, would be a huge boon to local recruiting.

Media events for the game have already started, with local product Jahlil Okafor claiming his national player of the year award at a press conference on Tuesday.


But it’s not, as we’ve seen only two McDonald’s All-Americans suit up for a local school. Both were Illini basketball players: Dee Brown and Jereme Richmond. I’ll stop talking about the latter right now. It’s best for everyone involved if we just move on from the topic of Jereme Richmond.

So the chicken-or-the-egg quandary remains: no one cares about nearly all of the teams in the state…that’s why they can’t land the best guys. Or you can’t build a nationally relevant program until you land those essential building blocks.

How do you get a job without experience? Without experience, how do you get a job?

“The in state schools are great also, Illinois, DePaul, Northwestern, there’s a lot of great things going on there, but for me personally Duke was the best fit,” said Okafor, the nation’s #1 ranked recruit, during my exclusive with him on Tuesday.


Well, the “narrative” (quite possibly the most overused word of all these days) of why can’t the Illini recruit here is a false narrative. Illinois has gotten a lot of the 3-star and 4-star guys. They’re just missing out on the 5-stars.

They’ve gotten pretty much everybody from Simeon high school who was a big deal other than D. Rose and Jabari. The 2005 National runner-up team was largely composed of Chicago suburbanites (Dee Brown, Roger Powell, James Augustine) and one Chicago Public League guy (Luther Head). But who’s the one guy out of the five who actually had/has a pro career that anyone is aware of?

Deron Williams; from Dallas, Texas.


Which segues to my next point: if you get players, who cares where they come from?

If other programs in other states come to the second city to “poach” our talent, then you just go to other states to “poach” their talent. Don’t worry about recruiting locally.

Recruit nationally.

What would you expect Duke and Carolina to do? “Lock down their borders” in Research Triangle Park? Raleigh-Durham?

Kansas is going focus on cornering the Wichita and Topeka markets?

Now doesn’t that sound silly?


“It’s not really about where you’re from. I just wanted to find the best spot for Jahlil,” said Okafor’s Dad Chuck, an assistant coach at Whitney Young on Tuesday.

“They’re doing well, as far as recruiting Illinois,” Chuck Okafor said of the Illini basketball program, and the local schools.

“But I think the coaching changes so frequently, it doesn’t give them an identity.”

So therein lies the rub.

Paul M. Banks owns The Sports, an affiliate of Fox Sports. An MBA and Fulbright scholar, he’s also a frequent commentator on national talk radio. The former NBC Chicago and Washington Times contributor has also been featured on the History Channel. President Obama follows him on Twitter (@paulmbanks)

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