With one of the wildest local recruiting days in memory (maybe in history?) now in the books, it's time to take a look and provide a few thoughts on just what transpired -- good and bad.
There was drama and intrigue shining down on Chicago and the state of Illinois this past Friday. The nation's No. 1 player, Whitney Young's Jahlil Okafor, was making his college choice, as was consensus top five prospect, Curie's Cliff Alexander. They did so with a national television audience looking on, courtesy of ESPN.
Throw in the fact local schools Illinois and DePaul were among Alexander's final four, and the day captivated the fan bases of those schools, high school prep basketball fans and all those who follow recruiting as if it's a sport.
The hat drama
Unfortunately, a day that should be 100 percent celebration instead ended with controversy and ill will in these parts due to Alexander's rope-a-dope hat trick, dropping the Illinois hat he initially grabbed before putting on the KU hat and announcing he's headed to Lawrence. The hat trick went viral locally and nationally, with Illinois fans feeling duped.
Though there was zero reason to tease and taunt a fan base that treated Alexander like royalty in the months leading up to the announcement, it's not the fans who should have felt the most disrespected or whom outsiders should feel for the most. No, those feelings should be directed towards the Illinois coaching staff, including head coach John Groce and Alexander's lead recruiter, assistant coach Paris Parham. You certainly would have thought Alexander would feel a little something for the second-place finishers in his long and intense recruiting derby.
Groce, Parham -- or any college coach for that matter -- doesn't need or ask for sympathy; they've already turned the page and are on to the next group of prospects they will target and try to sign next November. And, yes, a large part of coaching at the collegiate level is spent recruiting. It's a critical and, often times, thankless part of the job.
Nonetheless, the hat act is more disconcerting when you consider the time, effort and energy put in by coaches, and the fact they pour their heart and soul into recruiting. During the recruiting process, especially intense battles like this, a prospect and coach build a real relationship. Coaches spend hundreds of hours, thousands of the school's dollars, time away from their families in traveling the state and country, talking on the phone, making trips to the high school, planning official and unofficial visits, doing anything they can to show what it seems so many prospects clamor for -- "the love."
At the end of the day, no matter the outcome -- again, only one school gets that signature -- there isn't a coach in the country that deserves the slap in the face from a recruit, especially with the stakes so high, that the Illinois staff received from the Curie star.
Whether you want to believe it or not, or it makes you feel a little uneasy because we're talking about kids still in high school, these are big dollar decisions. These decisions mean wins and losses, television and radio deals, ticket and advertising sales, coaching contracts and can impact the economy of a college town.
The high-profile recruiting blueprint
When you consider it involved the nation's top-ranked prospect, the Okafor recruitment was about as tame and harmless as you could imagine. About the only drama throughout the process was whether or not he and Tyus Jones would stick to their original idea of playing together in college.
In August, in this very space, I wrote a column stating the Jahlil Okafor recruitment playbook could be a best seller. There was no evidence or examples of anything "getting out of control" or "turning into a circus" when it came to his recruitment. Again, highly unusual when dealing with a prospect of this magnitude in the sport of basketball and playing in a major city like Chicago.
But that was August. So much could have easily changed between then and his announcement roughly three months later. It never did. Okafor, nor those around him, didn't disappoint in avoiding all the many potential pitfalls a big-named recruit could succumb to along the way. He handled the process with class, integrity and didn't add any theatricals.
Thank you, Jahlil!
No, No, No ... the sky is hardly falling at Illinois
I would totally understand if coach Tim Beckman and Illinois football were getting ridiculed with derogatory headlines and subtitles. That's easy to see and very explainable, even expected at this point.
But one very rough day on the recruiting front is cause for misinformed and inaccurate headlines and stories on Illinois basketball?
For a program that just last season secured a memorable and monumental win over the No. 1 team in the country (beating Indiana), captured the Maui Invitational, won 23 games, reached the NCAA Tournament and got to the round of 32?
For a program with a head coach who has won over fans, media and, most important, the players within the program who publicly appear, and behind closed doors, to truly love playing for him?
For a program whose arrow is pointing up with every player (including the transfers sitting out) basically returning next season? For a program doing well on the recruiting front and has invested millions of dollars in refurbishing and updating their arena?
So with all that being said, what's the point for over-the-top negativity for a basketball program -- and its fan base, for that matter -- when it really isn't warranted or make sense?
Being right there to the very end for Alexander and finishing as the runner-up does, well, in a word: suck. But even in that lost cause -- and I admit, this is totally looking through things with rose-colored glasses -- the fact Illinois is back in the hunt with players like Alexander says something. Illinois was not in that position a year or two ago. Heck Illinois hasn't been in that position for quite some time.
Sure, the loss of point guard Quentin Snider was big in the grand scheme of things. It's going to sting. He's a consensus top 50 recruit at a critically important position for Groce and the Illinois basketball program. There's no getting around the fact a very talented piece of the future was lost.
But here's why the Snider de-commitment was far from debilitating.
A part of the reason Snider isn't coming to Illinois is the fact he sees three guards next year standing in his way: Tracy Abrams, who will be a four-year player with over 80-plus starts; Ahmad Starks, a double-digit high-major scorer in Ahmad Starks who is sitting out this season; and current freshman Jaylon Tate who, in the early going, has shown he more than belongs.
Would Snider have forged his way into the mix and received minutes as a freshman? Certainly. He's talented enough, but Illinois will still have three veteran players with point guard ability for the 2014-2015 season. The consequences of losing Snider become bigger long term -- IF Groce and Illinois can't land a top-notch point guard prospect in the Class of 2015. But if it can, the loss of Snider basically becomes a moot point.
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