Illinois basketball has a long history of success, and there have been times where the program is regarded as one of the top in the country.
But those times are few and far between.
Under Bruce Weber, Illinois went to a National Championship game. And if they weren’t on the big stage, the Illini were almost always at least ranked.
Why hasn’t the program ever been able to take the next step? Why haven’t they gone from being competitive every couple of years to stacking together years of successful seasons? I’m not expecting Illinois to be Duke or Kansas, but why can’t the Illini be Villanova or West Virginia or even Purdue? The answer to me is simple, and it all comes down to one factor: recruiting.
Where Are We Now?
Many around the basketball program feel that Brad Underwood is the answer for Illinois. Many believe that his style of play and his coaching mind will be what finally brings high-profile recruits back to the University. To some extent those people are right. The key to bringing in great recruits is winning.
The Illini are off to a pretty fantastic recruiting start in the Underwood Era as well, securing commitments from Mark Smith and Ayo Dosunmu and retaining commitments from Da’Monte Williams and Trent Frazier. The staff has also found a nice diamond in the rough in Greg Eboigbodin.
By all accounts Underwood is doing well. One area for improvement is that the staff has struggled to secure a commitment from a desperately needed big man.
It will come, so Illini fans should be nowhere near agitated about the current state of affairs.
Where We Were:
John Groce had quite a bit of troubling landing top recruits. He had a couple shining stars (i.e. Malcom Hill, Kendrick Nunn and Nnanna Egwu), but he always failed to reel in the big fish. It was no secret that under Groce, the Illini were hurting for a skilled point guard that we never were able to get.
Weber had a lot more success with top-tier recruits, landing guys like Meyers Leonard, Jereme Richmond and Brandon Paul.
The equation seems simple. Illinois wins more, and Illinois ends up with higher level talent. Chicken before the egg. Seems easy, right?
The Core Issues:
While we have had our share of big recruiting wins, I think Illini fans can list a much longer list of painful misses on high-caliber players. But why is this? What makes it so that other teams can land several four-stars player in each class and even manage to pepper in five stars now and again?
No, I’m not just talking about the blue bloods there. Look at some of the mid-level Big Ten teams over the years.
Illinois has landed a handful of stars but they rarely, if ever, put together back-to-back classes to develop the type of depth it takes to make a deep run in the tournament, which is absolutely essential in college basketball.
So what is holding Illinois back in recruiting?
First and foremost, geography. Champaign is sitting nicely between major recruiting hubs in St. Louis, Indianapolis, and Chicago, so that should help, right? It sure should help, but it doesn’t. It’s hard to focus a coaching staff on one are when there are so many hubs close to us to focus on, an area that Underwood is trying to fix by having several assistant coaches with expertise in those geographical areas (i.e. Chin Coleman in Chicago).
Also, when you go to Indy, you are competing with Indiana, Butler, Purdue and more. If you look to St. Louis, your competition is Saint Louis and Missouri.
Many point to Chicago as the obvious way to solve this issue as the major competition in the area is less cluttered in that area. That sentiment would be correct if it weren’t for the fact that Chicago is one of the biggest basketball hubs in the country and attracts schools from all over the country to compete with.
So while most schools have a niche area to recruit, Illinois is caught in no man’s land trying to pick and choose who to commit its loyalties to.
The other issue I mentioned earlier is — you guessed it — winning. Cut it anyway you want to but if you want sustained recruiting success you have to continue to have success in the win column year in and year out. It sounds obvious but it’s hard to win without recruits, and it’s hard to recruit without winning.
The last major hurdle is the University’s academic standards. I, for one, think it’s a good thing to have a bar for students to have to reach to be student-athletes, but the U of I’s bar is pretty darn high. If you think about it, this factor doesn’t necessarily destroy Illinois’ recruiting chances, but it doesn’t help with recruiting depth.
Sometimes recruits want to commit, but they cannot pass the academic standards to be enrolled.
Maybe each of these factors alone don’t kill your ability to recruit, but all of them put together sure make it difficult.
Brad Underwood should be able to get this program back to being very competitive, but I don’t know if he, or anyone else, can get the Illini over that hump to the ranks of the basketball elite.
What do you think? What are the biggest problems facing this program in recruiting? Can Underwood save the Illini? What do you think can change to get Illinois to the point of competing in the NCAA tournament at a high level again?
Comment in the section below or feel free to join the conversation on twitter @Champaign_Room.