By Joe Henricksen
A little over two years ago coach Bruce Weber and the Illinois basketball program received a much-needed commitment from a freshman named Jereme Richmond. Following the commitment of the No. 1 prospect in the Class of 2010, came a flurry of recruiting headlines and positives. Peoria Central's D.J. Richardson, Warren's Brandon Paul and Sterling's Joseph Bertrand committed in the fall of 2007 and signed this past November, right along with Tyler Griffey out of Missouri. Class of 2010 stars Crandall Head and big man Meyers Leonard gave verbal commitments and the Weber recruiting critics have been silenced.
Now, with the commitment of Mt. Carmel star guard Tracy Abrams, who is the City/Suburban Hoops Report's No. 1 ranked player in the Class of 2011, could the next recruiting wave be starting for the Illini? Current top prospects love to play--and want to play--with Abrams, a likeable player with great character. And if anyone has paid attention to the Illinois prep basketball scene, the sophomore class is absolutely loaded.
With Abrams in the fold, he instantly becomes an attraction for Illini basketball for this next wave of talent. In this new age of early commitments, it can't be overlooked what those young, committed players can do for a college program. The right kid, like an Abrams, often becomes instrumental in the selling of the program. And right now if you're an Illinois high school product, it's cool again to play at the major state university.
Abrams, who burst on the scene late last season with eye-popping performances in big sectional wins, is a dynamic talent. He's an athletic and explosive combo guard, along the lines of former UCLA star Russell Westbrook, who is in the process of learning the nuances of the point guard position. In addition to his athleticism, his greatest attributes are his toughness, competitiveness and ability to raise his level of play in big moments and against top competition. He's a big-time competitor who wants to make the play at crunch time. He attacks the basket and finishes well at the rim. His mechanics on his jumper aren't as fluid as you would like, and he's still learning the ropes of running a team, but he's only a sophomore. He will grow in those areas as he excels in the areas you just can't teach.
Once again, a lot of credit goes out to Illini assistant coach Jerrance Howard. The energized and tireless working Howard continues to make the necessary contacts and establish genuine relationships with recruits and their families. It's pretty remarkable how far Illinois came in such a short time in regard to the recruitment of Abrams.
Illinois, who did not immediately capitalize on the magical Final Four season, has since set their recruiting efforts high. They aren't settling for the lesser prospect. They continue to aim high. Howard, in a relatively short period of time, has become a tremendous presence for the program. And you would be hard pressed to find a head coach who works harder, both on the recruiting trail in getting out to see players and within his own program, than Weber.
Now the future looks ridiculously bright. The thought of an interchangeable perimeter attack that features the likes of Abrams, Richardson, Paul, Head and Richmond? That's scary good and a whopping amount of length and athleticism. That's a group that a college head coach can't wait to mold any way he wants. Now we'll wait and see who will jump first and join Abrams in this next wave of Illini recruiting.