By Joe Henricksen
This Saturday afternoon the Illinois basketball program is hyping its practice as the World's Biggest Basketball Practice. The practice will follow the Illinois-Minnesota football game and be conducted on a basketball floor behind the end zone of Memorial Stadium. But this day is bigger than just a great marketing strategy for the basketball program, where fans get a quick look at the current players and recruits see the exposure the program receives.
Never before will there be as much individual high school talent on the Illinois campus for a combination of official and unofficial visits as there will be this weekend. We're talking a ridiculous load. Will all of the planned visitors be in attendance? Will even more than expected show up?
The boatload of talent starts with the current commitments of Brandon Paul, D.J. Richardson, Joseph Bertrand, Tyler Griffey, Crandall Head, Jereme Richmond and Meyers Leonard. Richardson and Paul will both be on their "official" visits. Out-of-state Class of 2011 star Bradley Beal, a sharpshooter out of St. Louis, will be on campus. Bobo Drummond of Peoria, arguably the top 2012 prospect in Illinois, will be making the trip. The top five players in the Class of 2011 -- Mt. Carmel's Tracy Abrams, Whitney Young's Sam Thompson, DeLaSalle's Mike Shaw, Rock Island's Chasson Randle and Curie's Wayne Blackshear -- are all expected to be there. Bloomington Central Catholic's Hayden Hoerdemann and DeLaSalle's Dre Henley will also take in the festivities as two of the better players in the sophomore class.
Again, so much credit goes out to assistant coach Jerrance Howard. He has truly helped establish and elevate a family atmosphere, combining past, current and potential players into one and feeling a part of the Illini program and family. Having played at Illinois, having so many connections to past and recent Illini greats and tirelessly working the recruiting scene, he is in the ideal position to do so. And current recruits -- both those that are committed and those being recruited -- have taken notice.
Never before have Illini targets been so interested in getting on campus and spending time with fellow recruits and prospects. The fact that so many of the top players in the loaded Class of 2011 are expected to be on campus at the same time is awfully impressive. Imagine going back about 12 years and getting the likes of Quentin Richardson, Corey Maggette, Bobby Simmons, Frank Williams and Michael Wright -- all at the top of the remarkable Class of 1998 -- on campus together during their sophomore year of high school? This sophomore class is the strongest the state has had at the top of a class since that great class of '98. This Saturday, for all the top players in the state, the place to be is Champaign.
It's hard to find another coach in his current position that loves what he's doing more than Jerrance Howard. It's infectious and recruits can't help but feel connected to the program in the early stages of the recruiting process. The more and more comfortable a kid gets with the program, the surroundings, the coaches, the current players, other recruits, etc., the easier it is to make the biggest decision of their early life. This type of setting can help put at ease some of the recruiting pressure that goes along with being a highly-ranked prospect. And for Illinois basketball and coach Bruce Weber, this weekend is just another important step in that process.