By Joe Henricksen
There was some lingering mail remaining, the last of the bunch from the fall Hoops Report mailbag, from the previous mailbag questions. Here is one last mailbag before the season tips off in less than a month.
QUESTION: With all the basketball you watch, especially all the individual players you see at an early age and, I would assume, have to make a snap judgment on, do you ever think or ask yourself three or four years down the road, "What was I thinking?" As an avid fan, it seems to happen to me with some of the players I watch over and over. So I wonder if it happens to people like you or college coaches?
-- Ty from Bridgeview
HOOPS REPORT: If the Hoops Report Mailbag had a "Question of the Day" -- and a gift certificate to award and recognize the "Question of the Day" -- you would be the winner, Ty. (Sorry. Budget cuts). But you are absolutely right.
I talk about this with college coaches from time to time. I even have a name for it -- "Zellwegered." That's what I call it. Remember Renée Zellweger playing Dorothy Boyd in the 1996 movie "Jerry Maguire"? She was a relative unknown at the time but an absolute screen charmer as agent Jerry Maguire's assistant and romantic partner, with a vibe and innocence as a somewhat desperate, but very likeable, dreamer. She was appealing with just the right combination of "sorry single-mom" drawing power and sex appeal. You couldn't help but love Dorothy Boyd and ask yourself, "Who is this chick and where did she come from?" With a terrific performance in "Jerry Maguire", with famous lines like "Shut up, just shut up. You had me at hello," Zellweger gained widespread attention and was on the rise.
So, much like a young basketball prospect that bursts on the scene at an early age, people start to rave about Zellweger and the hype instantly engulfs her. She is one of People magazine's 50 Most Beautiful People. She starts dating Jim Carey, marries Kenny Chesney for five months and, after performances in "Bridget Jones's Diary", "Chicago" and "Cold Mountain", a movie that earned her an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress, she is a monster star.
Maybe it's just me, but the more movies I watched Renée Zellweger star in, the less I liked her on the big screen. She annoyed me. I didn't even find her cute anymore. I didn't like the movies she was in. She got too skinny. She wasn't the sweet Dorothy Boyd I remembered. Was this really the same actress who was so darn likeable in 1996?
Maybe it was too much Zellweger, who started pumping out movies at an alarming rate over the past decade. Yes, a fine job in "Cinderella Man", but ... "Leatherheads"? "Appaloosa"? "New in Town"? "My One and Only"? Lending her voice for some animated films? Nothing in the last five years worth bragging about.
My point in all this is it happens all the time in evaluating prep basketball talent. You see a player early on, during their freshman or sophomore year, and think the world of them. They excite you. You can't imagine being wrong on the kid. And suddenly, you realize by the time they are a junior or senior, the player just isn't what you thought he was two or three years ago. Right now I wish I could throw some names out there as examples, but it's not fair to the kid -- and the poor player and his parents don't even realize they've been "Zellwegered." But it happens.
QUESTION: I'm thinking Simeon, as the No. 1 team in the country, back-to-back state titles under their belt, having the top player in the country and the name and tradition that it has, will simply psyche out a majority of their in-state opponents. Would you agree?
HOOPS REPORT: There is no doubt the stakes will be a little higher for every team when it gets a chance at tackling a power like Simeon. And there is no doubt a few of those teams will have the same look of horror in their eye during warm-ups as Papa Doc had when B-Rabbit blew him out of the water in the final scene of "8 Mile" when the two battled at The Shelter. Remember Papa Doc being humiliated, choking and simply quitting before he even took the mic? (RIght now the 58-year-old white basketball fan in Hinsdale has no clue what I'm talking about. Oh, well. Good movie, nonetheless, and a great reference point.)
While Simeon will be favored in every single game it plays within the state borders, the Wolverines will get the best and biggest punch from every decent-and-above team it faces this season. That's what Simeon has to be prepared for mentally as it shoots for a three-peat this winter.
QUESTION: I'm a big fan of the Central Suburban League and the teams in the CSL South. But I think the league is going to be down. Can you give me a quick breakdown of the favorite and what you expect? Thanks and enjoy your work.
-- JK in Kenilworth
HOOPS REPORT: The CSL South is always entertaining and an interesting race to follow, but you're right in saying the overall strength may not be quite what we have seen in recent years. That happens when a conference heavyweight program like Evanston is down. New Trier is certainly the team to beat and one that could put together a pretty memorable season. Coach Scott Fricke has a whole lot going with the up-and-coming talent in the program, a veteran presence like Connor Boehm and a healthy Austin Angel. I like the Trevians.
Maine South will be solid again, but the Hawks will likely take a bit of a step back in comparison to the past couple of years. Niles West lost quite a bit from its surprising 18-win team of a year ago, but welcomes transfer David McCoy of Loyola. I think Waukegan, led by Akeem Springs, could be a real sleeper in the Chicago area. I spoke with coach Ron Ashlaw recently and he is excited about coaching this group.
QUESTION: Aside from the big names from 2011 like Anthony Davis, Wayne Blackshear and the Illinois freshmen, what current freshman do you think will have the biggest impact for their respective college team? Thanks.-- Elliott from the Grove
HOOPS REPORT: Yes, Anthony Davis will have an impact at Kentucky. And so will Chasson Randle at Stanford. But a few names to keep an eye on as far as immediate impacts are Niles North's Abdel Nader at Northern Illinois and Hillcrest's Juice Brown at Toledo. Also, keep an eye on Keifer Sykes, the former Marshall guard, who is at Wisconsin-Green Bay. He's tough, competes and was always a little undervalued by most. Sykes could force his way into playing a bigger role than expected.
QUESTION: Joe, why were the Fire better this year on the AAU circuit than they were the past few summers? They had juniors playing up with 17s when I watched, so you wouldn't think that would be the case.
-- Morris from Dolton
HOOPS REPORT: The majority of the time chemistry is barely mentioned when it comes to AAU/Club basketball. Remember a couple of summers ago when the Fire had Jereme Richmond and Meyers Leonard, along with several other big-named players and top underclassmen? They even had Tim Hardaway, Jr. (now starring at Michigan) playing with them part of the time. But it never clicked. Overall, the psyche, priorities and interest were lacking with that group. That happens A LOT in AAU basketball. I think this past year's group was put together nicely with different parts pieced together. And then when your two most valuable players are juniors on a senior-dominated team -- Jabari Parker and Billy Garrett, Jr. -- who put the team and winning first, it carries over and goes a long way in a team having success.
QUESTION: I see both NIU and Loyola made very quick impacts recruiting since their new head coaches have been hired. Loyola seems to have gotten two outstanding recruits in the kid from Indiana, Darrell Combs from Thornwood and the Payne brothers, one coming in 2013. And NIU landed Abdel Nader. Why hasn't UIC been able to do the same? I know you were a big Howard Moore fan. Just wanted to get your thoughts why UIC doesn't seem to be moving forward more quickly. Thanks.
-- South Side Hoops Fan
HOOPS REPORT: There is no doubt both Mark Montgomery and Porter Moser at Northern Illinois and Loyola, respectively, have made their presence felt in a short time. For NIU to get done what they did in such a short time, recruiting wise for 2011, was pretty impressive. And Loyola was able to initially nab Cully Payne (transfer from Iowa) and now land what looks to be a heck of a 2012 recruiting class for next season and Payne's brother, Quenten, in 2013.
There are two things that stand out when looking at UIC and their attempt to resurrect the program. First, the UIC program was an absolute mess when this staff took over. The basketball program was as down and depleted as any program can probably be for a new staff. The other factor that can't be forgotten is Moore wasn't hired until mid-August of last year. The regular coaching hiring cycle typically takes place in March or April. That allows a coaching staff 8-9 months of identifying and evaluating talent, especially in July, building recruiting relationships, setting a tone within the program and simply getting settled. With Moore being hired in August and his staff shortly after -- again, after the all-important July evaluation period -- it really put UIC basketball, Moore and his staff behind the 8-ball and scrambling. UIC has done a nice job recruiting out of state, which obviously doesn't grab as many local headlines. Now they are working hard to tap into the Class of 2013 in Illinois and nab a couple of local difference-makers.
QUESTION: I personally haven't seen this much attention and media coverage surrounding a single player out of Chicago like we've seen with the coverage of Simeon's Jabari Parker. Is it too much you think? The kid seems to handle it fine, but all the reports of where he is or isn't is kind of crazy, no?
-- Mark Rostenick from Rogers Park
HOOPS REPORT: Well, the Parker coverage is not even close to the Theo Epstein stratosphere of media coverage that has engulfed the city of Chicago. Since the "Second Coming" has arrived, I never hear anything about Jabari (Relax, Cub fans. Sarcasm. ... Kind of.). In fact, if a little Jabari Parker news could in any way bump the Epstein coverage just for day, I'm all for it. (By the way, when are they going to start selling Epstein jerseys?)
But you are right, there has been some useless Parker recruiting coverage out there, especially considering the family has made it a point he's not going to offer up a commitment until the fall of his senior year. But you are also right in saying the "kid seems to handle it fine." That's because the kid hardly reads into any of it, stays humble and goes about his business, which is church, family, taking care of academics and improving his game. In this day and age, THAT'S more newsworthy than who he is taking phone calls from or where he spends his weekends. Take that, Theo!
QUESTION: Having been at it for a while like you have been, Joe, do you develop your own relationships with college coaches and end up pulling for those teams? I would figure that it would just be natural when dealing with college coaches.
-- RG from Des Plaines
ANSWER: Good question. Yes, kind of, RG. But there are so many terrific coaches (and really good guys) in the business, both head coaches and assistants, you end up pulling for a whole lot of coaches and teams. And it gets difficult when good coaches, who are also good guys, are on the hot seat. Good coaches do get fired in the business. But when you look around at some of the stuff that goes on in college basketball and recruiting, you do appreciate the staffs and coaches that do it the right way. So it's hard not to root for the coaching staffs at programs like Wisconsin, Purdue, Illinois (and several others) who absolutely do it the right way.
QUESTION: You do the best job in covering high school basketball in Illinois with endless information and content, interesting reading material and overall knowledge. Thank you for that as there isn't much out there for high school sports. But to keep up with everything you do, from the recruiting end of things to your historical knowledge of prep hoops in this state to knowing individual players upside down to what you do in your Hoops Report publication on high school teams, coaches and current issues, do you have time for other hobbies other than basketball? And what are they?
-- Rob S. from South Barrington
HOOPS REPORT: (Thanks, mom!) ... No, really, thank you, Rob. And thank you for your interest in my personal life, though I do kinda feel as this may be the feeling I might get if I were to fill out a Match.com questionaire.
The photographic memory I have is similar to the one Mike Ross has on the television series "Suits" (Highly underrated TV series on USA Network. Did anyone else stumble on the USA Network this past summer and watch this?!?!?!). That goes a long way in my research and remembering the great basketball history in this state.
Lets see, other than basketball? I follow the White Sox religiously as a season-ticket holder (may finally be dropping them after watching too much Adam Dunn and seeing $45 million owed next year to Dunn, Alex Rios and Jake Peavy). And I LOVE college football in the fall. Love it. Fell in love with Billy Sims and Barry Switzer's wishbone as a kid in 1979 and I've been a Sooner football fan since (Boomer Sooner!). Oh, yeah, my wife reminds me I do have a wife..
QUESTION: Love your work and really feel like you always have a real good grasp on not only Illinois high school basketball but also the state school, the University of Illinois, and their recruits as well. But my question for you concerns Bruce Weber and his career at Illinois. How do you look at the job he's done, comparing where the program was the first few years he was on the job and where it's at now. Thanks for taking the question.
ANSWER: When you think about it, Bruce Weber's first five years at Illinois perfectly mirrors the "Rocky" movies. So this will take awhile. Maybe it should be it's own separate blog. But here goes.
Like Rocky Balboa, Weber arrives at Illinois as an underdog after the departure of Bill Self, who was beloved and, whether warranted or not, built a rock star-type status. If you remember right, that first year was so rocky (pardon the pun) for Weber, with players doubting him and his system. He was up against it -- big-time -- that first year, battling players, fans and skeptics after a 12-5 start that included an overtime win over Illinois State in non-league play and a loss to Northwestern in a 3-2 start to the Big Ten season. Weber was the ultimate underdog, just like Rocky Balboa was in the very first "Rocky" movie. But Rocky surprised. He went the full 15 rounds with the champ, Apollo Creed, before falling. And Weber did too. After the 12-5 start, Illinois ripped off 12 straight Big Ten wins and, in the end of that first year, defied the critics and won 26 games and reached the NCAA's Sweet Sixteen.
Any Rocky fan will probably tell you that Rocky II could go toe-to-toe with the original "Rocky", which was arguably the greatest sequel to any movie this side of the "Godfather." "Rocky II" had it all, including the famed run from his neighborhood to the Philadelphia museum steps, with a growing number of kids running behind him. Rocky had to deal with Adrian in a coma. The Rocky II soundtrack included "Overture," arguably the greatest motivational song ever and still gives me goose-bumps when heard in a sold out stadium. And Rocky stunned Apollo Creed in the rematch at the Spectrum.
And we know what happened in Weber's second year. It was a dream season, with Dee Brown becoming a national figure, the Wake Forest win in a battle of No. 1 vs. No. 2, the 29-0 start, the dramatic comeback over Arizona at Allstate Arena to advance to the Final Four and a national title game appearance. Both the Rocky movies and Weber are at their absolute peak in Season 2, at an emotional high point and really nowhere to go but down.
There was no way "Rocky III" could be any good. No way. Not after putting together two back-to-back movies like "Rocky" and "Rocky II." And while "Rocky III" wasn't at the same level as "Rocky I" or "Rocky II," it was still rock solid good. It gave us another hit song, "Eye of the Tiger," a fabulous and easy to dislike foe in Clubber Lang (Mr. T), arguably the best scene from any Rocky movie -- Rocky attending to his trainer, Mickey, taking his final breath moments after losing to Clubber Lang. And Rocky teaming up with Apollo Creed in preparation for the rematch with Lang.
Like "Rocky III's" surprising success, Weber, meanwhile, kept Illinois rolling in Year 3 despite the losses of NBA Lottery Pick Deron Williams, fellow NBA pick and leading scorer Luther Head, underrated Roger Powell and sixth man Jack Ingram. Behind Dee Brown, James Augustine and, really, a bunch of role players, Illinois started the season 15-0. The Illini finished 26-7 (11-5 in the Big Ten) and lost in the second-round of the NCAA Tournament. Another very solid season, maybe even better than honest fans could have imagined.
"Rocky IV" surprised. No, it wasn't great, several steps down from the three previous Rocky movies. But it was still very watchable with some memorable highlights, including: another great movie-generated opponent in Drago, the hated Russian from the despised Soviet Union; Drago ending Apollo Creed's life in the ring in an exhibition match; and Rocky's easy-to-remember training in the Soviet Union's biting, bitter winter weather.
While some may disagree, the Hoops Report believes Weber overachieved with the 2006-2007 team, though it did end quickly with a first-round tournament loss to Virginia Tech. While the team did overachieve to a degree, winning 23 games with Warren Carter as the leading scorer and a very average-at-best backcourt of Chester Frazier and Richard McBride, the bigger question was why wasn't there more talent on the roster and in the pipeline? The recruiting misses were first starting to catch up with Weber in season four.
"Rocky V"? Yuck. Illinois basketball under Weber in Year 5? Yuck.
Rocky goes broke, Adrian has to go back and work at the old pet shop, Rocky manages the kid fighter, Tommy Gunn. Just bad, real bad. Meanwhile, Weber and his Illini suffer through one of the worst seasons in school history -- 16-19 overall, 5-13 in the Big Ten and a roster full of average talent. Shaun Pruitt was the leading scorer (12.6 ppg) and Trent Meacham was the second leading scorer. Ouch.
This is the point where, if you're Bruce Weber, you really hope the comparisons to the "Rocky" franchise ends. Because while "Rocky V" was an absolute flop in 1990, Stallone still came back for another one in 2006 with the final movie, "Rocky Balboa." Don't feel bad if you missed it or didn't even know it was made. Most people don't even remember there was another "Rocky" movie. It was dreadful. And the Rocky era was over. Two too many movies later.
Weber, though, bounced back from his own dreadful 2007-2008 season to win 24 games the following year, only to fall in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament to Western Kentucky. Despite the 24 wins, there was another bad taste left in the mouth. A NIT season in 2008-2009 added to the vultures swirling around Champaign-Urbana. And while this past season of ups and downs did at least generate a NCAA Tournament win over UNLV, the overall results didn't match up to the preseason expectations with a senior-laden group that welcomed McDonald's All-American Jereme Richmond.
When I look at Weber and his time at Illinois, any criticism directed towards Weber and a recent lack of success is, more or less, a result of a three-year window of recruiting doldrums. When you are a program that doesn't rely on one-and-done type players and McDonald's All-Americans, you can't afford to have a three-year window where the best prospect you bring in -- and by far -- is Demetri McCamey. At least if you plan on being a Top 25 program.
Last year's senior group of McCamey, Mike Tisdale, Mike Davis and Bill Cole could have been fine -- if there would have been some players (even a couple!) either in front of them in the recruiting Class of 2006 (there wasn't) or the class behind them in 2008 (there wasn't). Again, that's a three-year window between 2006-2008 where this past year's seniors were to be supported by the likes of ... Brian Carlwell? Richard Semrau? Dominique Keller? Stan Simpson? You just aren't going to win big with that type of talent.
After a three-year recruiting absence (maybe four if you include the class of 2005 with Chester Frazier, Charles Jackson and Jamar Smith), Illinois has bounced back with strong classes in 2009, 2010 and 2011. Unfortunately, the best prospect in that three-year window (Jereme Richmond) will now likely go down as arguably the biggest Illinois recruiting bust in the program's history. But again, while these recruiting classes are clearly better than the ones from 2006-2008, we're not talking top 30 national talent, NBA-type caliber players. So when you don't have quality seniors that have come through the program (transfer Sam Maniscalco is the only senior on the team) or any of those young, immediate difference-making type talents, the big-time success every program and their fans want to achieve does not happen overnight.
But from a talent and chemistry perspective, Weber is in a better position going forward than he has been in the past few years. Illinois now has to hope to overachieve this season, pump some life back into the program and reel in a 2013 prospect or two that can put them over the top when this very solid, energetic group matures and gains experience.
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