By Joe Henricksen
A particular criticism of Illinois basketball last season was a lack of toughness and strength. That should change in coming years with the addition of Robinson big man Meyers Leonard, who is a freshman at Illinois this season, and, hopefully, the Illini's newest commitment -- De La Salle's Mike Shaw.
Although the Chicago Sun-Times reported earlier in the week Shaw to Illinois was a done deal, the 6-8 junior plans to officially announce his verbal commitment to coach Bruce Weber on Thursday afternoon at a press conference at De La Salle High School. Shaw will join Mount Carmel point guard Tracy Abrams, Orr's 6-6 scorer Mycheal Henry and St. Ignatius big man Nnanna Egwu in what is shaping up to be a solid recruiting class.
The Shaw recruitment has had some twists and turns, much of which was created by continued wild internet speculation. Illinois did all it could for the past three-plus years in making sure it remained in the Shaw Sweepstakes until the very end. And while Illinois has always been front and center with Shaw, things began to officially solidify late last week, just prior to Shaw's visit to Illinois this past weekend.
Shaw came into high school as the Next Big Thing, a freshman at De La Salle with the size, body and skills of a player that looked to be a phenom. The problem was Shaw faced what the Hoops Report calls "Galifianakis Syndrome." Say what? Whoa, that sounds serious. Follow me here for a second.
Zach Galifianakis bursts on the scene with an impossible-to-top performance in "The Hangover" as the outrageously funny Alan. Now, no matter what Galifianakis is in -- HBO's "Bored to Death," his two new movies "It's Kind of a Funny Story" and "Due Date" or even "The Hangover 2"-- he can never be as funny, appreciated or loved as he was in the "The Hangover." It's absolutely impossible to live up to those comedic expectations. You watched that movie and just said, "Wow! Who is that guy?" as your stomach hurt from laughter.
While Shaw's progress did plateau a bit, of all the kids in the loaded Class of 2011 it was Shaw who had by far the loftiest standards to live up to since coming out of junior high. He was labeled quickly, talked about repeatedly as the next great prep star out of Chicago. But the hype was a bit much for any young basketball player to be expected to reach.
Shaw, who remains one of the coveted players in a talented senior class in Illinois, is still among the top dozen prospects in the state in the Class of 2011 by the Hoops Report. He's ranked much higher by others. He's also considered a consensus top 100 player nationally, though the Hoops Report hasn't believed that to be the case for the past year. Whether the Hoops Report believes he's a top 100 talent nationally doesn't matter. Illinois wanted him and got him.
With the body and frame Shaw already features, he certainly looks the part. He will only add weight and strength to his college-ready body. In a few years, with the proper training, Shaw should be an absolute man physically. Plus, he has the fortitude to stick his nose in things around the basket and on the boards, battle, compete against anyone and use his physical attributes -- when he wants to.
Shaw is capable of stepping out and knocking down the 18-20 foot jumper, but he's far from consistent. He runs the floor very well, is a solid passer, rebounds and, above all, is a solid character kid who is coachable. Of all the highly-regarded prospects in the Class of 2011, Shaw is one who just goes out and plays, does what is needed and doesn't get caught up in the amount of touches and opportunities he receives. When others have sat for various reasons, Shaw was a constant -- both for his high school team and his Mac Irvin Fire club team. The 6-8 De La Salle product will be a player Illinois fans will grow to appreciate if the expectations aren't too high for a player who is overrated nationally -- and even locally by some.
While the superlatives thrown towards assistant coach Jerrance Howard have been well documented, they continue with the commitment of Shaw. This was the one recruitment that went the distance where Howard was there from wire to wire. Abrams was an early commit, Egwu's was done well before the final July period even began, and Henry's recruitment was fast, furious and ended quickly.
Illinois was in on Shaw early, stuck with it for over three years and got it done a few weeks before signing day. There was some heavy lifting by Weber and Howard in a recruitment that stretched over three years. While the public perception was that this recruitment was a fight to the end, Illinois has been the leader and the school to beat over the past few months. Illinois just had to hold on and fight off the challengers.
With Shaw, Henry, Abrams and Egwu all committed, Illinois has positioned itself as having one of the better recruiting classes in the country in the Class of 2011. While the class could end up being a tad bit over-inflated by national analysts as a result of some inflated individual player rankings, it could still be argued this is one of the best recruiting classes Illinois has put together because of the depth and needs, with the possibility of Weber adding yet another player to this class. On top of that, all four commitments hail from high schools in the city of Chicago, with Henry playing in the Chicago Public League and Abrams, Shaw and Egwu all part of the Chicago Catholic League.
Illinois can now wrap things up with a lightning strike if it can land Devin Langford out of Huntsville, Ala. While Langford may not have the eye-opening national rankings fans salivate over, what hasn't been realized throughout the whole Chasson Randle wait-and-see recruiting saga was the infatuation Weber and the Illinois staff have had for the 6-6 Langford. Illinois, which has made multiple trips to Alabama, is enamored with Langford's versatility and potential.
Langford, who will make an official visit to Illinois this weekend, is described by one college assistant coach in the south as being "as versatile as they come with instincts and a great feel for the game." Langford is capable of playing any one of three different perimeter positions. And Illinois hopes Langford, who the Illini think more highly of than most, fills the fifth slot in what is a stellar Class of 2011.