The future of Illinois basketball largely hinges on their in-state success in the 2017 class, and Larkin forward Christian Negron is a big part of their plans.
John Groce and his staff got the first 2017 domino to fall on Saturday after Belleville East wing Javon Pickett committed to the Illini during his visit to campus. Negron was also in Champaign to take in Illinois' game at the State Farm Center.
The Illini extended an offer to the 6-foot-7 forward back in April and they followed him closely on the AAU circuit over the summer. But Saturday was the first chance for Negron to get a closer look at the program and see what the Illini have to offer in person.
"I was just really excited to get out here," Negron said on Saturday. "I think the atmosphere is really underrated. The fans are really into the game and that's nice to see."
Negron added that he was impressed with the renovated arena, although he didn't see what it looked like before. As for on the court, Illinois fell to Nebraska 78-67. Negron talked about what he saw from Illini.
"They were just struggling to hit shots," he said. "I could tell that they played hard. They've been working through some adversity. You can see how much (Tracy) Abrams helps the team."
With Negron's athleticism and motor, it's easy to see how he could help the Illini down the road. Illinois' staff has made that clear with how they're coming at him.
"They say they like the way I'm playing, and that they're going to keep contacting me and keep being aggressive," Negron said. "Coach (Jamall) Walker has been to a game. Coach (Paris) Parham has been to a game. We've been texting back and forth. They've been pretty active."
Active is a great word to describe Negron's play on the court. In fact, it's probably an understatement. He is currently averaging around 18 points, 12 rebounds and five blocks per game during his junior campaign.
Negron is a two-way player, and he utilizes his 7-foot-2 wingspan to his advantage at the defensive end. Offensively, Negron attacks the basket and he's very skilled around the rim - when he's not rocking it with a slam. The difference maker this season is that Negron has made great strides with his outside game.
Last Friday, he knocked down four threes on his way to a 29-point outing. Negron also added 12 rebounds in the victory over St. Charles North.
"The coaches have been telling me to be aggressive and get my looks at the basket," he said. "Still trying to expand my game and continously go out on the perimeter to get better. I think that's going to open up my recruiting a lot more once I get to showcase that."
For now, the major players in Negron's recruitment are Butler, Illinois and Iowa. Negron picked up an offer from Butler earlier this month, and he also took a visit there as well.
"The atmosphere at Hinkle Fieldhouse was great. I really like the coaching staff. I like the way they play," Negron said. "They were No. 9 in the country at one point, but they have had some recent losses. They're a good basketball team though."
Negron also spoke highly of Iowa, and he visited the campus in the fall. The Hawkeyes may be in the best position at this point.
"Honestly, Iowa has probably been the most active. They've been in and out of our gym," Negron said. "I haven't been up there since September, but I've been texting them back and forth a lot."
The Illini hope that they can lock down the borders for Negron and other in-state talents. Adding Peoria Manual guard Da'Monte Williams could ultimately help their cause. Williams and Negron teamed up over the summer with the Mac Irvin Fire, and they'll play together on the 17U circuit during the upcoming AAU season.
Negron said that he hasn't been in much contact with Williams recently, but he's excited for what they can do together in the near future.
"I haven't talked to him much because I know he's busy with his season," Negron said. "I know he's having a great season."
"I can't wait to get out there with him this summer. The spotlight will be on. Hopefully we play well, and it'd be nice to take that EYBL title this year."