If you're an Illinois basketball fan, you know that the good times have been few and far between--like 1949, 1951 and 1952, 1963, 1984, 1989, 1998, 2001 and 2002, finally 2004, 2005 and 2006.
The past decade was the most successful in Illini history, 252 victories in 10 years, a record of accomplishment that even traditional national powers Kansas, Kentucky, UCLA, Duke and North Carolina had to envy.
The talent level of the program was racheted upward. In introducing a new recruiting policity, coach Bruce Weber began to secure the borders as Harry Combes had done in the 1950s. In a short period of time, Weber and his staff demonstrated that out-of-state programs can't recruit Illinois' top prospects without a fight.
That is very good news for alumni, fans and media who have been frustrated by the losses of several blue-chippers who won NCAA championships at other schools or became No. 1 draft choices in the NBA. Now, in the wake of undeserved criticism that Weber couldn't recruit or couldn't coach (take your pick), there are several reasons to cheer and feel very optimistic about the future.
In fact, it's hard to find anyone this side of the lunatic fringe of Illini Nation, who wouldn't be satisfied unless Bill Self and Bruce Pearl were barred from coaching, who isn't pumped up by what they see with Illinois recruiting. Of course, recruiting doesn't automatically translate to victories on the court. But Weber is putting together the most talented roster in years, with great depth and size and athleticism, something Illinois has enjoyed on only a few occasions.
"They have never been in a better position than they are right now with respect to recruiting," said longtime analysts Roy and Harv Schmidt of Illinois Prep Bulls-Eye. "Who would have ever thought that after losing out on key is-state prospects such as Jon Scheyer, Sherron Collins and Derrick Rose that they would be able to rebound and turn the corner so quickly?
"But they did primarily because Weber was successful in changing his recruiting philosophy and in doing so recognized the importance of getting in on elite-level prospects at an ever earlier age and in many cases offering them a scholarship sooner in the recruiting process."
The Schmidt brothers credit the arrival of assistant coach Jerrance Howard, describing him as "a vital ingredient in the Illini's recruiting turnaround. He has an uncanny ability to establish immediate camaraderie with prospective recruits and is a master at being able to identify with them and develop a personal connection."
It isn't only Howard. The Schmidts point out that assistants Jay Price and Wayne McClain also have done a tremendous job, making Illini recruiting a total team effort. Price and McClain have made major adjustments in their approach to recruiting, as Weber did. They are tireless workers.
While Illinois' recruiting class of 2010 ranks close to the top 10 in the nation with Jereme Richmond, Meyers Leonard and Crandall Head, the class of 2011 is no worse than a top 15 nationally and could climb to a top five ranking if the Illini sign either Anthony Davis or Mike Shaw or both.
"But here is the thing," the Schmidts said. "With the way that Illinois has recruited thus far in 2010 and 2011, they are in a position now where in our opinion no other recruit is an absolute must-get. While we believe that they are now concentrating on Davis and Shaw first and foremost when it comes to rounding out their 2011class, should they lose out on both they are still going to have a great class and there are a multitude of other solid options. That puts them in great position--both now and down the road. Right now there is depth at virtually every position with the possible exception of the four spot."
In closing, the Schmidts point out that all of the splendid work done with the classes of 2010 and 2011 should help Weber immensely when it comes to recruiting the heralded in-state stars from the class of 2013.
"Ideally speaking, we think that they want to land at least two of the big three in that class from among Tommy Hamilton, Jabari Parker and Alex Foster," Roy Schmidt said. "Either way, this much is certain--at the present time Illinois enjoys tremendous recruiting momentum."