Fighting Illini Sign Third Straight Top Class

The Fighting Illini basketball team announced the signing of four top basketball prospects to National Letters Of Intent Wednesday. This is the third straight Top 15 recruiting class for the Illini. Scout ranks them #11 in the country and first in the Big 10.

Illinois coach Bruce Weber added Tracy Abrams, Nnanna Egwu, Mycheal Henry and Mike Shaw to the fold as all four signed basketball scholarship tenders to attend the University. Each has tremendous potential, and each fills a need on next year's Illini basketball team.

Weber is especially pleased that all four come from the state of Illinois and the Chicago area.

"We're excited to have four new signees. The first thing about the group is they are Illinois kids, Chicago area kids, which is always a positive. It's been our focus. We've been fortunate the last few years to be able to keep state kids home. Hopefully that will continue in the future.

"Second, they're a group of good quality kids. They're guys you enjoy being around; they have a good positive attitude. As a group they're very coachable, ones that you'd like to have as part of your basketball family.

"And three, it matches exactly what we need. When you look at the four seniors, you're losing the big guy Tis (Mike Tisdale), a forward in Mike Davis, a wing in Billy Cole, and then of course the point guard Demetri (McCamey). We're fortunate this time to have a replacement for each of those four positions.

The 6'-1" Tracy Abrams committed to the Illini two years ago and has never wavered. The Chicago Mt. Carmel point guard has the quickness, explosiveness, intelligence, determination and leadership to compete immediately for playing time after the graduation of Demetri McCamey.

"Tracy Abrams is a young man that goes to a school in Mt. Carmel that has had great tradition in football and basketball. I go way back with Coach (Mike) Flaherty. He runs a disciplined, quality program, and I think that's what Tracy is about.

"He's a tough, hard-nosed kid who loves to play. Every time I talk to him on the phone, he always seems excited and happy to come to Illinois. He is a point guard. I think he will play both ends of the court; we're excited about that. And he has a little bit of the toughness and leadership abilities that you want in a point guard."

Nnanna Egwu from Chicago St. Ignatius College Prep is a blossoming 6'-9" center whose best basketball is ahead of him. Picking up the game a little over three years ago, he is highly motivated to play a game he has learned to love.

He has excellent timing on blocked shots and has become proficient at the 15 foot jumper. Egwu has bulked up to 230 pounds to battle in the low post, but he can also run the floor. Recent back surgery is now healed, so any delays in his development will hopefully be temporary.

"Nnanna is a special story, a great story," Weber describes. "His family came over from Nigeria, and he came at age five. He knew very little about basketball. In junior high, the coaches kind of discovered him. A very good quality student; academics are very important to him and his twin sister.

"Just to watch him evolve as a player. When you start with somebody who doesn't know very much about it, and then to watch his development, you've got to give Coach (Rich) Kehoe and his staff a great deal of praise for what they've done.

"The thing I love is, he really didn't have any habits. Sometimes you have to change bad habits, but he didn't have any habits. He runs hard, he plays hard, and he's a very good shot blocker.

"There's no definite records of shot-blocking in high school, but they feel he's got to be one of the all-time leading shot blockers in state history. (He had) 13 or 14 in one game last year, and he enjoys it. He will block a shot and then sprint down to the other end of the court. He has a nice touch. His upside is enormous because he's still growing and learning as a player."

Mycheal Henry made major strides as a junior at Chicago Orr. The 6'-6" wing player plays low post frequently for his high school, but he is also an outstanding shooter from long range. His combination of skills will be especially useful in Weber's motion offense as he will have opportunities to score all over the floor. And like Egwu, he is just beginning to evolve into his full potential.

"We got hooked on Mycheal Henry from Orr High School last season. He kind of erupted onto the scene. He was kind of unknown in the Public League to that point. He grew a little bit and put a lot of time into the game.

"He's a straight-out scorer; he's a very good shooter. He's got a beautiful jump shot, he jumps and gets up high in the air. He can really score around the basket also. He's developed a pretty strong body, so he has great size for a swing man.

"His coach Lou Adams has got that Orr program going. I think they're gonna be a contender this year in the Public League. He's tough on them, and I think when Mike comes here he'll deal with the transition pretty easily. The coaching staff there is very demanding and gets after them."

The last to commit was Mike Shaw from Chicago De La Salle. He was rated one of the top ten players in the nation as a freshman. While his rankings have gone down since, he is still considered a top prospect for his size and skill level and is a consensus Top 50 player.

At 6'-8", he can play both inside and outside. At Illinois, he may play a role similar to former star Roger Powell. In the motion offense, he will be a warrior on the boards while also being effective outside as both a passer and shooter. Weber says he is a blend of Powell and James Augustine.

"Mike Shaw from Chicago De La Salle, we started recruiting him as a freshman. I think I saw either his first game or one of his first games as a high school player. We've continued to stay in touch.

"I know it took awhile, but I think he's always wanted to come to Illinois and feels good about it. It took him a little longer and wanted to make sure it was the right situation.

"He's that athletic forward that you want to have in your program. He has great athleticism, he can run the court. He's really gotten stronger since the summer; he's put time in the weight room. His body has just changed. He had some strength always, but he's really made strides with that.

"He also has the ability to step out and do some things on the outside. So a nice inside-outside threat. He could play a variety of positions.

"He plays big man for his high school team and a lot of times in summer basketball. But what we tried to sell with Mike Shaw was that we have big guys, and he doesn't have to play inside all the time with Meyers (Leonard) returning next year and Nnanna. That will allow Mike to play a little bit out on the court. He has the athleticism we need."

Weber is excited about the potential of future teams when these four players join current sophomores Brandon Paul, D.J. Richardson, and Tyler Griffey plus freshmen Joseph Bertrand, Crandall Head, Meyers Leonard and Jereme Richmond.

He says the players already know each other and get along well. They enjoy each other. He credits his current players, singling out Richardson and his love of Illinois in particular, with helping recruit this new class.

Weber may not be through signing players this year. If there will be another one this fall, it may be Huntsville, Alabama, combo guard Devin Lankford. If he decides to wait to spring, Weber will reevaluate.

"We do have two more scholarships. I would say we will continue to recruit and look to sign one more in this class, and then probably save one for the next class because we have no juniors. At this point it doesn't look like we will sign a fifth player in the fall. Some things could happen in the next week.

"If not, we have some names we have identified and will continue to recruit them and evaluate as a staff what else is out there to see if there is something that meets our needs."

Enthusiasm is high for the future of Illini basketball. Of course, with enthusiasm comes expectations. Weber reminds of the challenges of molding star players into a quality team.

"Now they've got to produce."

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