It didn't take ESPN college basketball guru Andy Katz' prediction that Illinois will rank No. 15 in the nation in 2011 to stir emotions in Champaign-Urbana. It all began four years ago when coach Bruce Weber changed his recruiting philosophy and persuaded highly touted freshman Jereme Richmond to commit to the Illini program.
Remember Weber, the Gene Keady disciple who could coach but couldn't recruit? Now, in the wake of his recruiting successes in the classes of 2010 and 2011 and perceived underachieving in the Big 10, he is being described as a great recruiter who can't coach. But if Katz is right, fickle Illini Nation will fall in love with Weber once again.
Katz is asking for a lot, however. Purdue and Michigan State are rated 2-3 in his preseason evaluations behind defending NCAA champion Duke. And Ohio State recruited one of the most talented freshman classes in the country.
Katz issued some warnings, too. "There should be no excuse for the Illini this time," he said. "(Demetri) McCamey has to be a better leader. The streakiness with this squad has to stop."
But the arrival of three top 50-caliber players in Richmond, seven-footer Meyers Leonard and Crandall Head to bolster a roster headed by veterans McCamey, Mike Tisdale, Mike Davis and Bill Cole and battle-tested sophomores D.J. Richardson, Brandon Paul and Tyler Griffey is enough to make any Illini fan giddy with excitement and anticipation.
"What many would consider some woes this past year at Illinois was partly a result of some misses (Jon Scheyer, Julian Wright, Sherron Collins, Evan Turner, Derrick Rose) in the recruiting game three or four years ago when Illinois did not capitalize on the magical Final Four team of 2005," said recruiting analyst Joe Henricksen of City/Suburban Hoops Report.
"Those recruiting woes have certainly been corrected as we have seen an influx of talent in the past two classes Illinois has signed and the verbal commitments this far in the class of 2011. We will see the type of talent, up and down the program, that was there throughout the first half of this past decade."
Credit must go to Weber for his program-changing decision to adjust his approach to recruiting and his decision to hire former Illini player Jerrance Howard, who has made a difference in Illinois' approach to young prospects as Tony Yates and Jimmy Collins did during the Lou Henson era.
"Recruiting is at an incredibly fast speed now in comparision to when Weber was at Purdue as an assistant coach ormaybe even when he go his first head-coaching job at Southern Illinois," Henricksen said. "The recruiting cycle is at a faster speed and decisions are having to be made earlier than ever before.
"There is no question that Weber and his staff have targeted kids earlier and offered earlier. While some of the misses Illinois had in recruiting were due to some individual circumstances and out of Weber's control, some were due to simply not being in on kids and developing as strong of a relationship with those recruits early on.
"That has changed. Illinois is more aggressive, identifying prospects and hitting it hard at an earlier stage. The kids soak that up. They feel wanted early. And a key in that strategy is that Illinois is establishing those relationships and getting involved before other programs from outside the state have a chance. That's the way it should be with in-state targets."
Henricksen shares Katz' optimism. The talent level slipped in recent years and the on-the-floor results were predictable. But with this year's freshmen, the incoming freshman class and the promising prospects in the class of 2011, the talent level is back.
"I think we will see a big jump with Illinois, beginning the 2010-11 season with a mix of veterans and some terrific young talent," Henricksen said.
The class of 2011 is one of the most talented in memory, perhaps comparable to the star-studded 1979 (Isiah Thomas, Terry Cummings, Teddy Grubbs) or 1998 (Quentin Richardson, Corey Maggette, Joey Range) classes.
Illinois has commitments from 6-5 Mycheal Henry of Orr, point guard Tracy Abrams of Mount Carmel and 6-9 Nnanna Egwa of St. Ignatius.
Weber still is bidding for De La Salle's 6-8 Mike Shaw. And fast-rising 6-10 wunderkid Anthony Davis of Perspective and 6-6 Sam Thompson of Whitney Young are on his list. You never can recruit enough size and athleticism. Weber is eager to improve his rebounding and toughness on the front line.
He can't win 'em all, of course. It doesn't figure that Morgan Park's Wayne Blackshear, the state's No. 1 player in the class of 2011, will be wooed away from Louisville. And Henricksen believes "the ship has sailed" on Rock Island guard Chasson Randle. But who knows for certain? Do you think there still is a place for Sterling's Joe Bertrand in all of this?