By Joe Henricksen
Each and every college basketball program -- and their fans -- have a pins-and-needles recruiting story they can recall (or cry over) over the years. You know, the saga of the 17-year-old who toys with the middle-aged man's mind and has 46-year-old men twisting and turning while also salivating over the possibility of signing a letter-of-intent with their alma mater or local program.
I'm convinced the recruiting ridiculousness and interest has simply become the ultimate diversion from the real world for men between the ages of 30 and 55. But here's what it brings to the table: an outlet at work, sitting in front of the computer screen and reading message boards and recruiting sites; a chance to daydream just a little (hey, it's OK) over a long, 6-7 athletic freak leading their school to the NCAA Tournament; something to think about while the wife makes you sit through an episode of "Grey's Anatomy" or "Dancing With the Stars" (fortunately the wife dislikes both); missing a company or in-law's party to attend a holiday tournament at Proviso West or Pontiac to check out your program's top recruit; and a possible distraction to reality, which in likelihood is a downtrodden team or program you root for where the future is the only hope. But I digress.
The NCAA early basketball signing period is two weeks away. College programs around the state of Illinois have pretty much wrapped up their recruiting efforts for the Class of 2010 and have targeted players in the junior and sophomore classes, all hoping their recruiting decisions they have made are the right ones.
But there are also those potential impact recruits. There is that hope that all the time spent in the tiny high school gyms, all the phone conversations, all the flights across the country in July, all the late-night drives home, all the worrying was worth it. And when you land not just the good player, but the program-changing one, it was more than worth it. The problem is those type of recruits are hard to come by, especially when the homegrown stars are your best bet.
Still, the City/Suburban Hoops Report takes a look back at several of the Division I programs in the state of Illinois and their respective in-state impact recruits over the years. In this case we'll go back a dozen or so years and include only homegrown prospects. After all, sometimes these are the ones that break your heart the most when they go elsewhere. Here is a breakdown of each school's biggest and most recent in-state recruiting breakthrough.
The University of Illinois will be signing their most important recruit in decades in two weeks. Waukegan's Jereme Richmond is that important. Prior to Richmond, coach Bill Self signing Proviso East's Dee Brown was the biggest in recent memory as he instantly became the face of the program and a beloved figure. But the signing of Richmond should, once and for all, absolutely shut up the "Bruce Weber can't recruit" voices. There aren't many out there left, but keeping a hold of Richmond for approximately three years as a verbal commitment was pivotal for the program. Every elite program brings in game-changing recruits to put them over the top. Richmond has that kind of potential if everything falls into place for him.
This says a little something about the state of the program and where it's been the last decade: the two biggest in-state recruits over the past decade for the Blue Demons have been Leo's Andre Brown, who scored 1,146 career points but never quite lived up to expectations, and current guard Will Walker of Bolingbrook. And that's it. Yikes. Of course, in the fall of 1997 coach Pat Kennedy signed a top 10 national recruiting class that included Simeon's Bobby Simmons, Whitney Young's Quentin Richardson and Julian's Lance Williams, but that was the last true program-changing recruits DePaul has nabbed from Illinois. The next potential in-state difference-maker? The Blue Demons are hoping it will come from a Class of 2011 star.
Honestly, it's not a stretch to say Northwestern went decades without securing a pivotal in-state recruit prior to the arrival of coach Bill Carmody. Maybe that's why in just over 100 years of basketball at Northwestern, only two teams have won more than 16 games in a season -- the 1982-83 NIT team and last year's 17-win team. Now there is something to be said about the current recruiting fortunes, which includes a surplus of Chicago area talent in Evanston. A big recruiting coup was getting into the Chicago Public League and signing Michael "Juice" Thompson of Lincoln Park, the current junior point guard, a few years back. Thompson will be a four-year starter for the Wildcats and, more importantly, has been a walking billboard for Northwestern basketball for Chicago area prep players. But the biggest in-state signing -- and yet still an under-the-radar recruit -- is current freshman Drew Crawford of Naperville Central. The 6-5 Crawford was the City/Suburban Hoops Report's 2009 Player of the Year and is the most talented Illinois prep player the Wildcats have signed in years. Crawford has the potential to be a difference-making Big Ten guard before he's through at Northwestern.
When Osiris Eldridge signed with Illinois State in November of 2005 out of Phillips High School, the City/Suburban Hoops Report called the recruiting coup the "single biggest recruiting steal in Illinois in the Class of 2005." And it's certainly panned out for the Redbirds. Eldridge is on pace to move into the top five career scorers in school history and has helped re-energize a program that struggled after coach Kevin Stallings left for Vanderbilt 10 years ago. In the seven years prior to Eldridge's arrival, ISU averaged 13 wins a season. In the last two years alone the Eldridge-led Redbirds have won 49 games and reached the NIT twice. Eldridge, the preseason Missouri Valley Conference Player of the Year, is a huge fan favorite at Redbird Arena and on campus with his crowd-pleasing dunks and athleticism and the now-famous "O-Hawk," his mohawk-styled haircut.
What UIC needs right now is another Cedrick Banks-type of recruit. The Westinghouse star, who was the Chicago Sun-Times Player of the Year his senior year after leading the Warriors to a second-place finish in state in 2000, was the marquee recruit that was expected when coach Jimmy Collins took over. After sitting out his freshman year, Banks became the school's all-time leading scorer with just over 2,000 career points. The 6-3 Banks was simply "a baller," who was a three-time all-Horizon League selection who led UIC to the NCAA Tournament. That is your program-changing type of recruit. But that was 10 years ago.
Take your pick between Kent Williams and Kevin Dillard. In the late 1990s Williams was the local boy, the hotshot prep star who led Mount Vernon to the state tournament in Peoria as a high school player. He ultimately became one of the greatest players in SIU history, scoring 2,012 career points (2nd all-time at SIU) and leading the Salukis to a pair of NCAA Tournament berths. But it's hard to argue against Dillard's name and recognition. He was the first Mr. Basketball Award winner to play in Carbondale and had a monster senior year after signing with the Salukis in November of 2007, averaging 23.3 points, 5.6 assists and 4.3 rebounds for a 27-2 Homewood-Flossmoor team. Dillard was the Missouri Valley Conference Freshman of the Year last season and the team's leading scorer.
For a tradition-rich program in the fertile recruiting ground of Peoria and with big names like Hersey Hawkins, Chet Walker, Bobby Joe Mason, Anthony Parker and others as basketball alums, Bradley has had a tough go of it in securing top in-state talent. Their recruiting efforts have been nearly invisible in Chicago (currently only one Chicago area product on the roster in Sam Maniscalco). So trying to find the last impact recruit from within the state borders is not easy. Pekin's Jeremy Crouch? Peoria Central's Daniel Ruffin? The biggest and most recent was Peoria Central product Marcellus Sommerville, who didn't sign with Bradley out of high school. But when he did return home it was a big deal. Sommerville, who originally signed with Iowa and returned home after an All-American season at Southwestern Illinois Junior College, was named one of the nation's top five junior college transfers. He averaged 16.2 points a game in three years for the Braves, was an All-MVC player and helped lead them to the NCAA Sweet Sixteen his senior year.
Coach Larry Farmer came to Loyola with a big name a little over a decade ago. And it looked as if the Ramblers were about to get back to their early-1980 roots and success with Chicago-based prep talent by signing Westinghouse star point guard David Bailey 10 years ago. He was the all-important Public League pint-sized difference-making warrior. All Bailey did was score 1,933 career points, which is third all-time at Loyola, and finished third all-time in career assists. Still, despite all of Bailey's talents and infectious attitude, he didn't have a whole lot to play with as the Ramblers averaged 13 wins a year in Bailey's four years on campus.
Has it really been over 25 years since NIU signed the iconic Kenny Battle of West Aurora? For whatever reason (or maybe many), it's been near impossible for the Northern Illinois basketball program to get a big-time in-state recruit to buy into "staying home" and playing for the Huskies -- or any recruiting luck at all, for that matter. Heck, even Battle, the ultimate prized-recruit from nearby Aurora, left after two years and transferred to Illinois. And in the early 1990s it was believed Rolling Meadows star Mike Lipnisky was the steal of the century after averaging 30 points a game as a senior and creating a statewide frenzy when he poured in 37 points in a supersectional win and then 43 in a memorable quarterfinal loss to Gordon Tech in Champaign. While Lipnisky did have a solid career, it was tame in comparison to the expectations. Elgin's Marcus Smallwood finished among the top 12 scorers and top six rebounders in school history earlier this decade, but wasn't a big-named recruit but more of an overachieving undersized 4-man. The best of late is current sophomore Mike DiNunno of Von Steuben, who was highly-regarded coming out of high school and was on the MAC All-Freshman team last season.
The first issue of the City/Suburban Hoops Report, now in its 15th year of publication, is due out in three weeks. To subscribe or for more information email firstname.lastname@example.org or call (630)-408-6709.