Illinois: Picking up the pieces

Based on the decisions that broke today, you'd think there would be losers across the board. Four players, four decisions.

But in terms of perception, only one school truly suffered after Friday's quartet of announcements: Illinois.

The Fighting Illini missed on Cliff Alexander to Kansas, but that's not all. The program also suffered a cruel blow when point guard commitment Quentin Snider backed off his pledge and signed with Louisville, to whom he had committed previously.

Kansas' win for Alexander mitigated the Jayhawks' miss of Jahlil Okafor and Tyus Jones to Duke. And everyone predicted that Stanley Johnson would choose Arizona, so his other finalists couldn't be too disappointed.

But Illinois took it on the chin. The Illini never factored in seriously for Okafor, but they hoped to score with at least one of the Chicago elites in Alexander. Within the past 48 hours, they appeared to have closed the gap on Kansas and were considered by some to be the slight leader.

But we've learned never to count out Bill Self in Chicago — Okafor notwithstanding, and of course you can't count out Mike Krzyzewski there, either — and thus the Jayhawks once again beat Illinois for a top prospect. Hope flickered when Alexander briefly grabbed an Illinois baseball cap as he announced the winner, but he immediately replaced with a Kansas cap.

Though the pain today is immense, the Illini still have made significant progress on the recruiting trail. John Groce and his assistants traveled to Memphis and prevailed for blue-chip forward Leron Black, who possesses the height, strength and skills to play meaningfully as a freshman. They'll also add hometown forward Michael Finke.

And, though hollow now, Illinois did beat out UCLA and others for Snider following his de-commitment from Louisville. Although they lost him in the end, that recruitment proved the Illini can stand toe to toe against national heavyweights and triumph.

No one likes a moral victory and you aren't going to read a reaction piece here that bills Friday as anything other than an excruciating setback, but between Black and a strong junior class at Illinois that will return in 2014-15, the program's overall trajectory remains very promising.


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