By Joe Henricksen
We're not talking about a trip to the Final Four, a Big Ten title or even back-to-back big road wins at Michigan State or Wisconsin. But coach Bruce Weber and his Illinois coaching staff have to be feeling a little giddy about the upcoming Illini Madness this Friday night.
While the expectations are high in Champaign--the Fighting Illini are ranked in everyone's preseason top 25 and the recruiting classes have started to stockpile--the Illini Madness Friday night figures to add to the recent recruiting hoopla surrounding the program. Look for the Illini Madness to be a smashing success.
If Illinois had hoped its version of "Madness" would evolve into the place to be for the state's top prospects, then mission accomplished. When Weber's boys take the floor for the first time in front of a raucous crowd at the old venerable Huff Hall, many of the 4,500-plus eyes will be on the young high school prospects in attendance. The committed prospects will be appreciated by those in attendance. But in addition to committed players Tracy Abrams of Mount Carmel, Mycheal Henry of Orr and Nnanna Egwu of St. Ignatius, the Illini will welcome one of their top remaining targets: Rock Island 's Chasson Randle.
The good news for Illinois is that Randle will be on campus (yet again) for what should be an energizing event that coincides with his official visit. The Illinois official visit will wrap up the recruiting process for Randle with a decision looming soon after. Illinois can only hope a big-time weekend in Champaign for Randle will lock up a player Weber and his staff have pursued for three years.
As noted in an earlier Hoops Report blog, Simeon super sophomore Jabari Parker will be making the trip after being courted by other top programs in the country to attend their festivities. His dad, legendary Sonny Parker, is also planning on making the trip with his son. Parker is a huge priority for Illinois, an in-state star with the combination of talent, character and winning attitude and who has the potential to transcend a program. He's a national recruit, among the nations best who Illinois has had on campus and built a relationship with. When it comes to Parker, there is definitely a connection and affection towards the Illini.
Parker's buddy, 6-9 fellow sophomore Tommy Hamilton of Whitney Young, will also be in attendance. The top four prospects in what is shaping up to be an absolutely loaded Class of 2014--the Whitney Young tandem of 6-9 Jahlil Okafor and Paul White, St. Joseph 's Paul Turner and Zion-Benton's Malik Yarbrough--are expected as well. This talented foursome may not have had an official high school practice yet, but they will be welcomed with open arms on a college campus Friday night.
Another 2014 talent Illinois has had its eye on who will make the short trip over on I-72 from Springfield will be point guard Larry Austin of Springfield Lanphier. Plus, Providence St. Mel guard Tevin King and St. Rita's 6-5 Vic Law, two other top 10 prospects in 2014, will also be attending from the Chicago area.
Sophomore Preston Wells of Peoria Richwoods and a trio of freshmen -- Raymond Doby and Darius Austin of Cahokia and Peyton Allen of Chatham -- are other young, talented prospects who will be at Huff Hall.
Simeon's Steve Taylor, the top prospect in the Class of 2012, is heading to Champaign , along with his talented Simeon teammate, sophomore shooter Kendrick Nunn. Orr junior guard C.J. Jones will make the trip with his high school teammate, Illini commit Mycheal Henry. De La Salle's Mike Shaw will be heading to Marquette for its Midnight Madness, but two talented De La Salle sophomores, point guard Jaylon Tate and 6-3 Alvin Ellis, will be at Illinois .
And although it's not official just yet, Illinois is likely to be opening the door for a big-named, out-of-state guard prospect in the Class of 2013. Again, an opportunity to get a top 20 talent in the sophomore class on campus is another boon to the recruiting fortunes of Illinois.
The stars have aligned for Weber and the Illini as this is an opportune time to shine the spotlight on the basketball program.
What all this means is that Illinois basketball's Illini Madness on Oct. 15 has become an event. Sure it's great for the current players in the program to kickstart their season, but the added buzz surrounding the event will be due to the prep players in attendance. There will be a popular national club DJ (Steve Porter) spinning and pumping more life into the gym. Illinois is bringing in Lady Gaga and Usher. Ha! No, but Jabari Parker and Tommy Hamilton will be! This is no longer the conservative Teen Choice Awards route with puzzling guests in the audience; this is MTV's VMAs--cool, hip, entertaining. Host Bruce Weber playing the role of Russell Brand? Who'da thunk it?
And really, these types of events--when done the right way--are a made-in-heaven opportunity for college programs to impress the young kids, build relationships and bring them all together. This is one big, monster, teen-aged basketball recruiting orgy.
It's a tribute to Illinois and its staff for making the connections, doing the legwork, extending invitations and making sure these prospects feel wanted. In return, the state's elite players are showing this is where they want to be when several other options were made available to them.
Yes, the proximity is obviously a factor with Illinois being within a relative short drive for in-state prospects. But there are plenty of other high-profile programs within driving distance that are attempting to tap into the state of Illinois and the young, fertile talent that can be found here. Instead, it's Weber and the Illinois basketball program that is getting an opportunity to showcase itself in what should be an electric atmosphere.
This will be the biggest contingent of top Illinois prospects together since ... well, maybe ever. Illinois did put on what was billed as the World's Largest Basketball Practice following a home football game at Memorial Stadium in 2008, with a ton of heralded prospects on hand, but it won't match up or compare to this talented group.