Bruce Weber's Illini are aggressively offering and locking down the best in-state underclassmen; something the program had previously been unable to address. With commitments from Richmond, Brandon Paul, D.J. Richardson and Joseph Bertrand already on the books, the Illini dipped into the Class of 2010 for the second time.
On Sunday, Rich South sophomore shooting guard Crandall Head will publicly announce his intentions to play in Champaign. Head, regarded as a high-major player, is the brother of former Illini standout Luther Head.
Aside from the obvious connection to the program, there's another angle that worked in Illinois' favor and it's a situation worth discussing. When assistant coach Tracy Webster exited the program for Kentucky last summer, Weber hired former Illini guard Jerrance Howard.
"Some people thought they should have hired a Chicago guy," an Illinois insider told Scout.com. Many in the Chicago Public League rolled their eyes when Howard was announced. Howard, who worked for Billy Gillispie at Texas A&M and Kentucky, had no experience on the road as a recruiter. A gamble? No doubt but Weber's roll of the dice is paying dividends.
Howard played with Luther Head and has served as a bridge between the young recruits and the current situation. Behind the scenes, he's been instrumental in changing the perception of the program for the in-state kids.
"I think that was the key: go recruit 2-3 guys at the position and whoever wanted to be a part of the program was who they would take," an insider said. "All of the guys are friends and they want to play with the best. Establishing that relationship early has been huge.
"It's basically with these young guys, the staff, the fans and the program have something to look forward to. It's not just average guys, it's elite players (in-state) that want to be at Illinois."
In addition to achieving maximum in-state recruiting momentum with the young kids, the Illini also went into the Chicago Public League and scored a prospect. Stan Simpson is likely to be the best public leaguer the program's added since Luther Head was tacked onto the roster by former coach Bill Self.
Under Weber a long, distinguished list of in-state players left for different pastures, despite on-the-court success. From Julian Wright to Jon Scheyer and beyond, the exodus was painful for Illinois' faithful and recruiting momentum proved tough to achieve.
Perceptions on the recruiting trail are amongst the most difficult trends in college basketball to reverse. As a community, we're quick to point out when coaches are struggling and have trouble closing recruiting scenarios. Message board communities call for swift coaching executions with no looking back.
However, every now and then a CEO will re-invent himself, invigorate his company and manage to get things rolling again. Weber's situation can be likened to former N.C. State head coach Herb Sendek.
Midway through his decade-long tenure in Raleigh, Sendek reshaped his program with a change in style of play and sharpened his recruiting tactics. As a result, the Pack became a consistent NCAA Tournament program.
Weber, like Sendek, rolled up his sleeves and came up with a new approach and vision for his program. Though the talent is a few years away from matriculating, perceptions are changing and the foundation for the future has been laid.
A year ago recruiting was a touchy subject at Illinois. Now the Champaign is flowing as Illinois' cup bubbles over with the best and brightest in-state underclassmen.