By Roy & Harv Schmidt
It is absolutetly impossible to diminish the significance of this Saturday's festivities at the University of Illinois following the Illini's football contest vs. Minnesota. We are talking about what has been dubbed "The World's Biggest Basketball Practice." It is an event which will have virtually all of head coach Bruce Weber's primary in-state recruiting targets from the class of 2010 all the way down to the class of 2013 on campus at the same time. While each recruit's attendance is noteworthy, the one that we believe could have the greatest impact is Mt. Carmel's class of 2011 point guard Tracy Abrams. We say this because it is indicative of how the Illini have undoubtedly turned the corner in the Abrams recruiting sweepstakes.
Until recently, it was generally believed that the Illini had no chance of recruiting Abrams whatsoever. This is because the traveling team that Abrams played for was the Chicago Express, coached by Reggie Rose. Let's just say that Bruce Weber and Reggie Rose aren't going to be sitting down together at the same dinner table at any time in the future. We think that everyone knows the reasons why.
Since that time, things with Abrams have changed considerably. During the July evaluation period, Abrams switched his AAU allegiance and began playing for the Mac Irvin Fire. This is highly significant when one considers the fact that the Fire program is absolutely loaded at all levels. The 17-Under squad includes our #1 ranked prospect from the class of 2011 in 6'7 Mike Shaw from De LaSalle and 6'4 Crandall Head from Crane Tech in Chicago, who is our #2 ranked prospect from the class of 2010 and has already committed to Illinois. The 16-under squad features 6'5 Wayne Blackshear from Curie, 6'5 Sam Thompson from Whitney Young and 6'5 Dre Henley from De LaSalle, who are all among the top-ranked prospects in the loaded 2011 class. All of these players will be in attendance for The World's Largest Outdoor Basketball Practice.
Moral to the story? Reggie Rose is not the one in control of Abrams' recruitment. Furthermore, the people who are in charge have no hidden agendas and remain fully supportive of the Illini basketball program. Not only that, but the Illini coaching staff has now built a strong relationship with Mac Irvin, who is the CEO of the Fire. This is due in large part to the efforts of Illini assistant coach Jerrance Howard, who has undoubtedly been the driving force behind getting all of the Illini's prospective recruits to attend The World's Biggest Basketball Practice. Irvin has offered nothing but praise for Howard and the job he has done.
As a result, Abrams has now ascended to the top of Weber's priority list amongst recruits from the class of 2011. There is no question that Weber wants to land a quality point guard, but he wants it to come from the 2011 class--it doesn't have to come from either the classes of 2009 or 2010. He would ultimately love to have either Abrams, Thompson, or 6'2 Chasson Randle from Rock Island, who will also be in attendance on Saturday. Right now any of the three are realistic possibilities.
In addition, the top-ranked prospects in the state from the classes of 2012 and 2013--5'10 point guard Antonio "Bobo" Drummond from Peoria Central and 6'6 Alex Foster from Plainfield respectively--will also be attending the festivities. Other recruits who will be on hand include 6'7 Illini commit Jereme Richmond, who is our top-ranked player in Illinois from the class of 2010, and a pair of commits from the class of 2009--6'3 D.J. Richardson (originally from Peoria Central and now at Findlay Prep in Nevada) and 6'3 Brandon Paul from Warren--who will both be taking their official visits.
The World's Biggest Basketball Practice offers yet another classic example of why Jerrance Howard has rapidly become one of the best recruiters among any assistant coach in college basketball. Simply put, he is an innovator. For proof, let's take a look at what happened at the University of Kentucky not long after Illinois announced it's plans for the World's Biggest Basketball Practice. Once the University of Illinois marketing department received NCAA approval to hold the event on October 11, six days before the NCAA's official start date for college basketball practice, Kentucky head coach Billy Gillispie decided to have the Wildcats' Blue Madness moved up from October 17 to October 10. His primary incentive behind doing so was to try to gain a recruiting advantage. However, let's make one thing abundantly clear--it was the University of Illinois that was the trend-setter here. They are the ones who lobbied to have a practice scheduled ahead of the official start date and Kentucky then followed suit.
It is undeniable that Gillispie and Wildcat assistant coach Tracy Webster would have loved to have had all of the outstanding underclass talent from Chicago in attendance at Blue Madness. As it turns out, they will all be in Champaign-Urbana that day. In fact, it may be the greatest assemblage of high school basketball talent on the Illini campus at the same time in their recruiting history. This is due in large part to the efforts of Howard.
In summing up the overall significance of the upcoming weekend, it can definitely be argued that Howard has beaten Gillispie at his own game. Make no mistake about it--the battle lines between Illinois and Kentucky were drawn quite some time ago, probably going back to when Webster was hired at Kentucky. We realize that it may not prove to be the end-all, but it seems to us that round one has undoubtedly gone to Howard and the Illini.