Frequently, top prospects hailing from the state of Minnesota tend to play for Big Ten programs. While tradition certainly didn't hold with the Class of 2014 — Tyus Jones, Reid Travis and Rashad Vaughn all will make their collegiate homes outside the region — Alex Illikainen may herald a return to custom.
Or perhaps not. The junior power forward recently took an official visit to California, which just so happened to defeat top-ranked Arizona during the weekend. The Bears are one of numerous high-major contenders in pursuit, a list that also includes Indiana, Creighton, Iowa State, Nebraska, Northern Iowa, Oregon and, of course, Minnesota.
Despite being a four star prospect, don't expect Illikainen to get the same push as his 2014 predecessors. For one thing he doesn't boast their McDonald's-level national reputation, but along with that he hails from a passionate hockey town that's less accustomed to producing a hoops star.
College coaches obviously haven't been fooled, however. Illikainen cut his teeth at the Pangos All-American Camp last summer, proving that he could compete against national elites. He didn't stand out as one of the best players in attendance, but he clearly was among the more gifted underclassmen.
His game is effective, even if not dynamic. He performs a lot of basic tasks very well, the same concepts that prove elusive to many of his peers. Illikainen already possesses a productive arsenal of scoring moves with his back to the basket, an enormous advantage as he prepares to embark on the 2014 travel circuit.
We scouts (and coaches) do sometimes rely very heavily on athleticism when evaluating players — and clearly, valid reasons exist for that — but a big man with skill and instincts also can fit in at the high-major level. Watching Illikainen last summer, he impressed me with his strong, physical style, good hands around the basket and post footwork. He also steps out and hits some medium-range jump shots.
Some players need years to cultivate those aspects of their games, and for that reason he projects as a sturdy, four-year contributor.
The limiting factor indeed is athleticism. He doesn't possess great length or explosive quickness, leaping ability or reactions, and therefore he may develop into a key cog rather than a star. And that's absolutely okay, given that his likelihood of success appears to be quite high when viewed from that perspective. Stars are stars precisely because they are rare.
Illikainen's recruitment appears to be gaining steam, rather than losing it, so clearly our thoughts on his game align with high-major programs.