By Joe Henricksen
Larry Butler's Illinois Warriors have had better teams and more high-profile, glamorous players over the past two decades, but this year's 17-U team is still special. In a spring and summer AAU circuit where other Illinois AAU teams have received more hype, it's been the Warriors who have been a model of consistency.
The latest was starting 5-0 at the Nike Peach Jam and reaching the quarterfinals, where it lost 92-91 without its best player, Peoria Central's D.J. Richardson. The Illinois commitment headed home early to take care of some summer classwork. The Warriors have been a factor in each and every tournament it has played, reaching the quarterfinals of both the Boo Williams Invitational and King James Classic, falling in the title game of the Real Deal on the Hill, and winning the Howard Pulley Tournament.
"This is a special group," says Butler of his team. "We may not have the frontcourt other teams have, and we may not be in the category of our '96 or '98 teams, but it's still a special group of guys that has had a lot of success. They get along, share the ball, play hard and know that to reach their potential as a team they have to play a certain way and at a certain level. They are great character guys."
And while other programs in the state have many individual players that have been a tad bit overhyped and a bit overrated, the Warriors are stacked with a roster that truly features the underrated and overlooked.
Yes, Richardson is a star who will now likely be among everyone's top 50 nationally--possibly top 25--when the July evaluation period is over. But even Richardson has made a name for himself and elevated his status during the spring and summer when a lot of people questioned whether he was simply a really good player or a great one.
"He has improved every time out, gets better and better and continues to take his game to another level," Butler says of Richardson, who has cut down on his ballhandling misfortunes he has struggled with at times in the past.
As one coach of a high-major school told the Hoops Report after watching him play at the Peach Jam, "I didn't know D.J. had that in him."
Although Butler admitted guard David Brown of Rockton-Hononegah did not play his best basketball at the Peach Jam--or at least as well as he has throughout the spring and early part of the summer, no player has elevated his stock in the last 12 months more than Brown.
Marshall's Darius Smith is yet another vastly overlooked college prospect. There are questions about Smith's position at the next level and whether he shoots it good enough. While it's true Smith does struggle with his shot, he finds so many different ways to get things done. He's an absolute winner, a stellar defender, rebounds, distributes and fills a box score.
"Darius can dominate a game even without the ball," says Butler.
Several schools, including Bradley, Minnesota, DePaul, Marquette, Oklahoma State and Wyoming among others, are in pursuit of Smith.
And it seems the stock of two more Warriors, Drew Crawford and Jeremy Jones--two players the Hoops Report has been high on for quite some time--is taking off.
Crawford, without anyone really paying attention, had a terrific junior year for Naperville Central and has been a fixture among the Hoops Report's Top 25 in the Class of 2009. Crawford put that team on his shoulders and helped lead them to a conference title. He has an uncanny knack for hitting big shots. Crawford hit four buzzer-beaters alone last season that either gave his team a win or sent games to overtime. And what he showcases on his high school team is the ability to truly make those players around him better. Crawford, who is the son of NBA official Danny Crawford, is a big-time character kid, smart, articulate and unselfish.
What is interesting is that through last February, Crawford had heard from just one college coach--Northwestern's Tavaras Hardy, showing just how under-the-radar this 6-5 versatile perimeter player was. That has obviously changed. Crawford's recruiting is all over the map. Recently Seton Hall has become very interested, along with Stanford, Cal and DePaul among high-major conference schools. Loyola, Bradley, Penn, Princeton, Southern Illinois and Wagner have all been involved.
Jones, the 6-1 combo guard from Simeon, showed flashes in limited action last year for coach Robert Smith's Wolverines. He was an effective spot-up shooter. Now he's added so much more to his game. He has the capability of being a big-time scorer. He was absolutely terrific at the University of Illinois Satellite Camp at Moody Bible in June. He has continued to pick up his play and has several schools from the Horizon League, Mid-American Conference and Ohio Valley interested.