Former Illini great Derek Harper is not only one of the best players in program history, but he was a major catalyst in establishing Illinois as a national contender in the 1980s and beyond.
Harper was the first of seven McDonald’s All-Americans that the Illini landed during the ‘80s. As a freshman, Harper helped Lou Henson’s 1980-81 squad reach the Sweet Sixteen. The star point guard set the foundation for the future as well, while setting up to be a first-round pick in the 1983 NBA Draft.
Harper was the breakthrough get for Henson, and the rest is history. John Groce needs one of his own and he’ll have that chance with four-star 2016 point guard Xavier Simpson, who will take an official visit to Champaign this weekend. Like Harper, Simpson is a highly-touted playmaker from outside the state borders. He could have a similar impact to Harper if he chooses to suit up in the orange and blue.
Changing the landscape
While Illini fans fondly remember the '80s for the star players, successful seasons and a special Flyin' Illini run, the program wasn’t so glorious prior to Harper's arrival. Henson struggled to get over the hump during the years following his hire in 1975. He didn’t make the NCAA tournament until Year Six of his tenure, which ended an 18-year drought in the Big Dance. Henson and his staff had to mold the program on the recruiting trail, and that did not come easy—as he explained on Monday at the Lou Henson Court announcement.
“When I came here in 1975, we had very little support. As a matter of fact, we didn’t have very many things going for us,” Henson said. “You don’t win without talent.”
“Once you get players, you’re going to win. You can’t win without it. I don’t care how good of coach you are.”
Groce is currently facing that challenge. The program is hoping to avoid missing the NCAA tournament for the third straight year, which would be the longest streak at Illinois since Henson’s beginning years. Groce has worked tirelessly on the recruiting circuit to infuse more talent into roster. The Illini have added some good players in recent classes, however they are missing a game-changing point guard to complete the puzzle.
Harper showed what the results can look like if you land that prized point guard. After three seasons in Champaign, he became the program's all-time leader in assists (419) and steals (178). Harper played a crucial role in Henson's first NCAA tournament appearance, and he got the Illini back to the dance in 1983 during his decorated junior season. He was named a second-team All-American that year, as he averaged 15.4 points, 3.7 assists, 3.5 rebounds and 2.2 steals per game.
Afterwards, Harper elected to forgo his senior year and begin a 16-year career in the NBA. But his mark of success stayed with the program, as the Illini were able to build off the momentum. Following Haper's exit, Illinois reeled off seven straight top-five seeds in the NCAA tournament.
Opportunity is key
How did Henson and the Illini end up landing a blue-chip point guard from Florida in the midst of a calendar-turning absence from the NCAA tournament? It didn’t take a secret formula, as one might imagine. The sell to Harper was nearly identical to the one Groce has used with Simpson and other top targets. There was an opportunity to play big minutes in the best conference in the country, and the Illini earned Harper’s respect by how hard they pursued him.
“If you’re talking about why I went to Illinois, I always admired the Big Ten coming up. Magic Johnson and Isaiah Thomas were there. Brian Walker was at Purdue. Clark Kellogg and Herb Williams were at Ohio State. I thought the Big Ten was the best conference in the country at that particular time,” Harper said. “(Illini assistant) Tony Yates was the head recruiter that year. We had a bond and sort of a bridged relationship. I wanted to play right away. I thought Illinois gave me that best opportunity as a freshman to be on the floor and contribute right away.”
That opportunity meant everything to Harper, as he relished the chance to be ‘the guy’ from the very beginning.
“Even as a top player coming out of high school, the biggest challenge is continuing to play. You need to find a place where you can continue to grow as a player,” Harper said. “A lot of times, guys choose bigger-name schools and they get there, and because of the talent level and because of the depth there, you don’t get the opportunity to play right away. Your confidence can waver, and I didn’t want that.”
Groce has the keys waiting for the right point guard to take control of the program. He hopes that Simpson takes notice of the opportunity during his test drive this weekend. Harper believes the Illini have a lot to sell to Simpson and other high-level point guards.
“I think they can sell the fact that the kid will get a chance to play right away. Illinois is certainly a great university and one of the top basketball schools in the Big Ten, as it has been for a while,” Harper said. “I think to kind of have your own team is a special thing. That’s kind of how I felt when I came to Illinois—that it would kind of be my little show and I’d have an opportunity to put Illinois back on the map.”
But even Harper knew that he couldn't get the job done alone. He needed the right running mate to kick things off at the next level, and he found that in Eddie Johnson. The talented swingman was a battle-tested veteran, who was set to be a senior when Harper arrived.
"I thought pairing up with a guy like that, who had played against some of the greats in the Big Ten, would really bode well for me as a freshman at U of I," Harper said.
The Illini are currently hard-selling a similar situation with Simpson, as they offer an opportunity for him to play alongside the likes of Malcolm Hill, Kendrick Nunn and Leron Black. Hill could very well be an all-league player going into his senior season next fall. Groce and his staff believe they present the best setting for Simpson to succeed from the beginning.
Little bit of luck
As it is said, sometimes it's better to be lucky than good. While the Illini pushed all the right buttons with Harper, they ran into some luck in getting him. Harper has admitted that he was planning on going to Michigan until head coach Johnny Orr left for Iowa State. To Illinois' credit, Henson and his staff were able to capitalize on the opportunity.
Groce & Co. could do the same with Simpson. It’s no secret that he was prepared to commit to Xavier back in May, but he pulled back and they are no longer in the mix. The window is open for Illinois to take advantage.
The Illini staff and fan base have become all too familiar with the misfortunes of recruiting during recent years. One program's loss is another one's gain, and maybe it's time Illinois returns to the better half of that exchange. Harper said that it didn't take long on his official visit for Illinois to feel like home, as he also visited Florida, Florida State, Michigan and Wisconsin.
"The experience at Illinois was great. Eddie Johnson was my guy who took me to dinner and showed me around the campus," Harper said. "He sold me really easy on Champaign."
Simpson took an official visit to Iowa State on Aug. 7, and he has locked in an official to Miami on Sept. 11 as well. But the Illini hope that he gets that same feeling that Harper did on his trip to campus.
Matter of time
It's been more than 35 years since Harper took his decisive visit to Champaign. Now, the 53-year-old lives in Dallas and works as an in-game TV analyst for the Dallas Mavericks on FSN Southwest. Harper had a successful career playing 16 years in the NBA (1983-99), including 11 full seasons with the Mavericks. He was selected twice to the NBA All-Defensive Second-Team in 1987 and 1990.
While his job is to follow the NBA, Harper said he keeps a close eye on his Illini. As it turned out, it was only a matter of time for Henson to get the necessary pieces and make Illinois a threat in the Big Ten and at the national level. Harper said he sees Groce following the same path.
"There's no doubt about it. I think Coach Groce has done a tremendous job. He is working to jump-start the program again. I think he's a tremendous coach," Harper said. "But let's face it, at the end of the day, you need players. That's the challenge right now for him and his staff to get players in there. Once you get those guys, that's how you turn a program around."
"I think timing is everything. I believe the timing is prime for Coach Groce and the Illini."
Getting a player like Simpson is key to seizing that moment. It will be up to him to decide if the opportunity is right.
"I like Illinois. I have a good relationship with those coaches. Coach Groce and Coach (Dustin) Ford are some cool guys," Simpson said last month. "They show a lot of loyalty."
"We're excited about Illinois," Simpson's father, Quincey, said. "Looking forward to seeing campus and meeting the coaches and players."
If Harper's playing days are any indication, big things await the next great point guard to say yes to the Illini.
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