By Joe Henricksen

Why Big Cliff and Illinois makes sense

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Please excuse Cliff Alexander if he has bigger things to worry about and focus on right now than recruiting and all the high-profile college programs that covet the 6-9 Curie junior.

Alexander and his Condors are set for their biggest test of the season Thursday night in the Argo Sectional semifinal. A date with No. 1 Whitney Young and Jahlil Okafor, the top-ranked player nationally in the Class of 2014, awaits. A win would arguably be the biggest in Curie basketball history and propel them into a sectional title game Friday night against Simeon, in all likelihood.

But the Hoops Report will digress for a moment as Alexander's visit last weekend to the University of Illinois got me thinking.

You really wouldn't think a prep player from Chicago who is a 6-9 dunking, shot-blocking, rebounding machine and ranked among the top five players in the country would need a marketing campaign. OK, it's not as if Big Cliff isn't well known, highly respected and obviously coveted, but ...

At this particular time in Chicago, it's difficult to receive your proper due in the city where Simeon's Jabari Parker and Okafor play their high school basketball. Though absolutely no fault of their own -- and very much deserving -- Parker and Okafor gobble up all the headlines.

"We keep hearing Player of the Year and Mr. Basketball is a three or four-man race and he's never mentioned among those three or four players," Curie coach Mike Oliver told the Hoops Report recently. "That [ticks] him off. He should be mentioned in the same breath with those players, with any players."

As far as the promotion and maturation of prep hoops phenoms go, Alexander had a late start. He wasn't a hot shot 8th grader. You know, the ones the average fan won't know about until they actually do something at the high school level but every hoops junkie in the basketball underworld is aware of before they enter high school. 

Some pan out, live up to the hype, while some don't. The Chicago area has had a number of these early big-named, much-talked-about prep phenoms. We're talking recent players like Okafor, Parker, Tommy Hamilton, Alex Foster and so many others before them that were all heralded as early as 8th grade.

As an early teen, Alexander wasn't in that select company. He didn't even begin playing organized basketball until four years ago. Alexander doesn't come with the built-in fame you get for playing with the biggest named programs, either. 

He doesn't play for three-time defending state champion Simeon. He doesn't travel the world with Whitney Young. He doesn't run up and down the floor on the AAU circuit for the Mac Irvin Fire, Meanstreets or Illinois Wolves.

Those are some of the reasons why rumors have circulated that Alexander could be on the move, just as a past Curie superstar, Wayne Blackshear, did when he transferred in midseason from Curie to Morgan Park. Oliver just doesn't see history repeating itself.

"We're close," says Oliver of his big man who is averaging 22 points, 14 rebounds and 5 blocks a game. "He hears the same things Blackshear heard. But he believes in us at Curie, trusts us. He knows where he came from. He knows he started here, starting from scratch as a player. To see where he's come from since 8th grade in comparison to where the other top players have come from since 8th grade, it's not even close. His game keeps growing -- and fast."

In addition, unlike the other local phenoms, Parker and Okafor, Alexander isn't surrounded with an endless list of Division I talent on his high school team. The supporting cast Alexander plays with at Curie is good, but it's not loaded.

What this all points out is Alexander has been the kid who has done things differently. He's been his own man. Why stop now? That mantra, in fact, could be just the avenue he could take to elevate his name to another level, where his notoriety and status would reach a new plane.

How? Simple: By just staying home.

If Alexander just bucked the trend, announced that he would be playing his college basketball here in Illinois, any overlooking or second-fiddle status is gone. Immediately.

It's funny how a teenage basketball prodigy can have that much bearing on the emotion of adults. But they do in this rabid world of sports. Alexander would be celebrated. He would become the local hoops star that fans appreciated, cared about, respected and wanted to continue to follow and support.

Oliver recently told the Hoops Report "Michigan State has recruited Alexander the longest," but that his recruiting "remains open." He even mentioned his star would like to stay in the Midwest.

Which brings us back to Alexander's visit to Illinois this past weekend. The Fighting Illini are in the hunt for Alexander. Coach John Groce has re-energized the brand. The first-year coach has Illinois on the brink of returning to the NCAA Tournament, while bringing in a highly-regarded 2013 recruiting class.

That incoming freshman class, along with transfer Rayvonte Rice's arrival and a current sophomore group that continues to mature, puts several key pieces in place for Groce going forward. Now he and his staff are in pursuit of that player to put the program over the hump.

Alexander can be and do for Illinois exactly what Cody Zeller did for Indiana. The parallels are eerily similar. While Indiana basketball is in a different stratosphere when it comes to in-state fandom, Illinois basketball is nowhere near the bottomed-out depths Indiana reached while Zeller was playing his high school ball.

When Zeller, who is from Washington, Ind., committed to Indiana and coach Tom Crean in 2010, the Hoosiers were in the midst of a 3-15 Big Ten season and an overall record of 12-20. The prior two seasons, when Zeller was a high school sophomore and junior, the Hoosiers combined for a 16-46 overall record, including a horrid 5-31 mark in Big Ten play.

There is an obvious allegiance in Indiana to all things Hoosiers. But it was a seriously struggling program, nonetheless. Zeller was a five-star recruit whose brother was playing at North Carolina. From the outside looking in, it would have been acceptable for the 6-11 McDonald's All-American to leave.

But Zeller bought in. Despite the program's recent struggles, Zeller believed in what he could do for Indiana. He believed in what Tom Crean was selling. And he spearheaded the revival, elevating the program back to national prominence.

Alexander would do the same at Illinois.

And with that decision, Alexander's name would be revered in these here basketball circles. The name would take on added significance throughout Chicago and the state of Illinois. He becomes the face of a program. He becomes THE guy that did buck the trend, did something different, created his own legacy and would leave a lasting impression long after he's gone.

Do high school kids today realize the positive impact that all can have on their future? Anywhere else he's just the next player in a long line of them. Alexander will, as Rihanna says, shine bright like a diamond no matter where he plays. He would just shine a little brighter close to home.

This is always the selling point to get any hometown star to stay home. But the timing, the circumstances and the sensibility all just seem right for this Big Cliff to Illinois story to materialize.

Follow Joe Henricksen and the Hoops Report on Twitter @joehoopsreport

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8 Comments

Makes sense to me.

Look at John Sheyer. Went to Duke, won a championship. No one here remembers him.

But look at Dee Brown, who stayed home, went to Illinois, came in 2nd place, and people still talk about him with reverence.

Cliff would be the toast of the town if he goes to illinois, now especially since the school finally has a good coach !

Cliff - Your table is ready in Champaign, invite friends like JaQuan Lyle to accompany you to unprecendented success.

Your State. Your School. Your Dream.

Great article, Joe. Makes a lot of sense on many levels.

I understand that he's a bigger get than Nunn, but wasn't Nunn the guy from Chicago that bucked the trend? If we get Cliff, we probably need to also thank Nunn

Totally agree, John. Kendrick might not be the Top 5 player nationally that big Cliff is, but with a new coaching staff here it would've been easy for him to not even consider Illinois. And keep in mind the programs he picked Illinois over, only six weeks or so after Illinois was supposedly not in the mix: Ohio State, Marquette, and UCLA.

I don't know if Kendrick really "bucked the trend," per se, considering our sophomore class is comprised almost entirely of 4-star kids from Chicago rated roughly around where Kendrick was. But I sure hope it started a trend.

Nunn needs help. Ken can't do it by himself. But yes, Ken Nunn is ALREADY being talked about with incredibly high regard around the state, especially in Chicago.

Cliff is a top 5 recruit. If he goes to Illinois he will be in the Dee Brown stratosphere of Illinois lore.

Hmm, let's see. You can go play for a legend like Tom Izzo, or stick around the stinky dump of Champaign and be poorly coached by a clown like the guy illinois just brought in from the MAC.

Funny how every sports expert disagrees with you and says that Groce is a great coach.. but sure, let's trust a comment on the internet over the experts.

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This page contains a single entry by Joe Henricksen published on March 7, 2013 6:08 AM.

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